This July, for the 48th time, the annual trans-Iowa bike ride known as RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) was to have taken place, with 20,000 riders bringing their usual tens of millions of dollars of economic impact to the eight cities where they’d stop along their 420.3-mile route. Selected from more than 200 interested towns, the 2020 route included three towns — Iowa Falls, Anamosa and Maquoketa — with fewer than 6,000 residents.
Riders would have follow the prevailing west wind beginning in the ice cream capital of Le Mars, then culminate their adventure with a cold dip in the Mississippi in the lumber town of Clinton. But all eight towns on this year’s RAGBRAI route — the ride has overnighted in 133 in all — have economic stories to tell.
On April 20, RAGBRAI organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the race and plan for next year. But we’re casting the spotlight on those eight cities anyway. Saddle up and enjoy the ride.
Site Selection readers know Le Mars well because of its location in the high-performing Siouxland region, a routine winner among Tier-3 Top Metros for corporate facility project attraction. Wells Enterprise — the maker of Blue Bunny ice cream that has made Le Mars, in Plymouth County, the ice cream capital of the world — continues to expand its footprint. In addition to its headquarters and two plants in Le Mars, the company in 2019 acquired Fieldbrook Foods, thus stretching Wells’ manufacturing presence to plants in Dunkirk, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey. Together Wells and Fieldbrook employ over 3,800 people and produce close to 200 million gallons of ice cream.
Since that acquisition, Wells also has purchased a 250-employee ice cream plant in Henderson, Nevada, from Unilever.
Plymouth Dairy Farms, long held by the Feuerhelm family, in 2018 committed to a $4 million, 20-job expansion at its new Perry Creek Dairy site nearby Merrill, just to the southwest of Le Mars along U.S. Highway 60. The facility includes a rotary Holstein milking operation with 80 stalls, and a permit for 3,600 head of cattle in confinement. Even before the expansion, the operation milked up to 3,000 cows a day, resulting in 260,000 pounds of milk leaving the farm daily for … you guessed it … Wells Enterprises in Le Mars.
The last big expansion in town was a $30 million investment by Tyson Fresh Meats announced in 2016. The company already wants to grow again. Last fall, The Storm Lake City Council agreed to consider an amendment to the Storm Lake Industrial Park Urban Renewal Plan in order to accommodate new facilities from Tyson and Hillshire Brands that would involve their relocation from their current facility in Storm Lake’s central business district. Road improvements will be required to handle increased truck traffic. According to local press accounts, a new feed mill would receive a $37 million investment and create 15 new jobs.
Storm Lake is in Buena Vista County, a member of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corp. that supports economic development in the glacial lake territory stretching from Storm Lake northward in Buena Vista, Clay, Dickinson and Emmet Counties. The region’s agriculture economy features a number of pork, poultry and egg producers, supported by a range of small manufacturers. Storm Lake’s population of 10,600 represents around one-sixth of the Iowa Lakes Corridor’s total population of just over 64,000.
The corridor has its own higher education cluster too. Iowa Lakes Community College offers five campus locations in the region. Iowa Central Community College (ICCC) has campuses in Storm Lake, Webster City and Eagle Grove, with its main campus in Fort Dodge to the east. Earlier this year, Tyson announced the donation of fully-equipped mechanical and hydraulic benches to Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and ICCC to support industrial maintenance training in their high school career academies in such areas as automation, industrial maintenance, ammonia refrigeration and robotics.
“Our company and other manufacturers with operations in Iowa have a tremendous need for more workers with strong vocational skills,” said Steve Stouffer, group president, Tyson Fresh Meats.
ICCC early this year also cut the ribbon on a new Northwest Iowa Career Academy in Laurens, thanks to partnership with the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission, public schools, and area businesses including local manufacturer Pengo Corporation, which donated several sets of tools. The new site will focus on welding and integrated manufacturing programs, with plans to expand into industrial machining.
Buena Vista University in Storm Lake has an enrollment of just under 2,000. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds joined Buena Vista University President Joshua Merchant last fall to announce that Don Lamberti, founder and longtime chairman/CEO of Casey’s General Stores, Inc., had provided a $2.9-million gift to establish The Donald F. and Charlene K. Lamberti Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at BVU. Lamberti worked to build his first mom-and-pop convenience store in 1968 into Casey’s, which now employs nearly 15,000 people serving more than 2,000 stores, many of them central hubs of activity in their rural communities.
Visitors to the town’s Fort Museum and Frontier Village can see a replica of the Cardiff Giant, a sculpture of a 10-foot-tall man made from gypsum mined in the area. “The original sculpture was displayed in New York as the remains of a real giant before a lawsuit forced its owner to revealed his hoax,” says a guide from RAGBRAI. But there’s nothing fake about projects here in recent years.
AML Riverside in 2015 committed to a $5.7 million, 30 job expansion … . In 2017, South Korea’s U.S. affiliate CJ Bio America in April 2018 began work on a $53 million, 18-job expansion, five years after first breaking ground on its $320 million factory for the manufacture of lysine, a product derived from corn ethanol by-products to provide an essential amino acid for hog and poultry feed. The company’s facilities in Iowa Crossroads of Global Innovation industrial park, west of Fort Dodge, are directly adjacent to a large Cargill biofuels plant. The park — an Iowa Economic Development Authority certified site with dual rail access — has over 500 acres of land available for development. Other biochemical and biotech investors in the area include NEW Cooperative, Koch Nitrogen, Poet, Prestage, Silgan and Nestle, says the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance.
Known for its Calkins Nature Area and Rock Run Creek Trail & Bridge, Iowa Falls is within an hour’s drive (and a day’s bike ride) of John Deere’s hometown in Waterloo. Among the business advantages touted by the 64-year-old Iowa Falls Area Development Corporation is the city’s location on the main line served by Class I railroads Union Pacific and Canadian National and within 10 minutes of independent rail carrier Iowa River Railway’s line, with development sites available along these lines.
The city is home to Ellsworth Community College, part of the Iowa Valley Community College District and highly ranked among two-year schools for its precision agriculture and equine science programs.
Part of a larger metropolitan area known as the Cedar Valley (which includes the cities of Cedar Falls, Evansdale and Hudson), Waterloo has a population of 68,747 and a company roster headed by John Deere, whose John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum is a major attraction. Site Selection has tracked 13 major corporate facility investments in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area over the past five years, including projects in 2019 from Lincoln Savings Bank and Warren Transport, which combined were awarded $27 million in in tax reimbursement from the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Projects in 2018 came from Testamerica Laboratories and Advanced Heat Treat Corp. The biggest project in recent years was a $28 million, 245-job commitment from Tyson Fresh Meats in 2017.
Grow Cedar Valley has formed a working group to pursue retention and expansion of air service at Waterloo Regional Airport, currently served by just two flights a day to and from Chicago. Meanwhile, the Waterloo Career Center, which cut the ribbon last fall after a $17.5 million renovation at Central Middle School, offers high school students real-world training in multiple career fields for part of their day, featuring 14 programs with four more on the way.
On the northeastern outskirts of the Cedar Rapids metro area, Anamosa is located along the Wapsipinicon River in Jones County, halfway between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque along four-lane U.S. Highway 151. A few years ago the town attracted a $12 million investment from ReConserve, the largest recycler of bakery, cereal grain, snack foods and related food byproducts in the United States, which takes food waste from manufacturers and recycles it into a dried bakery livestock feed product. Headquartered in southern California, the company operates 18 plants across the country.
“Technically outside Anamosa, the famous Hula Hoop Tree is just weird enough to warrant a side trip” to a spot in the nearby community of Amber along County Home Road, says RAGBRAI. Legend has it that a 2015 storm blew the first hoop onto its leafless branches. Today, it’s adorned with hundreds of them, leading to a recent discussion of whether the tree was a safety hazard. “Thankfully,” RAGBRAI says, “this whimsical roadside attraction is still standing.”
Site Selection has tracked around 40 projects in the Cedar Rapids metro area since 2015, including a $29 million investment from Bio Springer North America and an $11 million headquarters investment from Skogman Construction last year.
Located on the canoe- and kayak-friendly Maquoketa River along U.S. Highway 61 north of the Quad Cities, Maquoketa’s claims to fame are largely nature-based, including Maquoketa Caves State Park’s Natural Bridge, which forms an arch 50-feet above Raccoon Creek, and Balanced Rock, a precariously positioned 17-ton boulder. The area’s industrial heritage includes limestone kilns associated with the former company town of Hurstville.
Known for its lumber heritage and LumberKings minor league baseball team, Clinton, like its counterpart Le Mars on the state’s other end, performs well each year in our rankings, nearly always in the upper echelon in Site Selection’s Big Muddy Cup ranking of Mississippi River communities’ economic development activity. The city is welcoming a $1.4 million, 84-job investment from Timken, which makes chains and augers at its site there and will move some operations from a site across the river in Fulton, Illinois.
A Nestle Purina dog and cat food plant that has operated in Clinton for 50 years received state incentives early this year for a planned $140 million, 73-job expansion. Other projects announced in the past year are coming from Lake Erie Biofuels, Collis, Sewer Equipment of America and UFP Technologies. Collis, a maker of precision-machined toolholders for manufacturers, says it occupied three buildings in Dubuque before making its move to Clinton … in 1912.