Winneshiek County Development Director Randy Uhl will resign his position effective Sept. 12 after having spent 15 years in the non-profit economic development position.
“I have been privileged to serve in this position since 1999 and during that time I’ve worked with many terrific people on many exciting projects,” Uhl said, adding that he is moving to Washington state.
A search committee has been formed to hire a replacement director. WCDI has contracted with Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission for that agency to provide assistance in the search process as well as to handle day-to-day business until a new director is hired.
“I’ve worked closely with Upper Explorerland for years and know they will provide excellent leadership until WCDI hires a replacement director,” Uhl said, adding that UERPC currently has an agreement with Fayette County to provide economic development assistance in that county.
Uhl became the third executive director in WCDI’s history in July of 1999 when former Director Don Wurtzel left the position. Marilynn Wolfe was hired as the first director in 1992, and she was replaced in 1995 by Wurtzel.

Major shifts
Up until the 1980s or so, economic development was pretty much focused on attracting new manufacturing businesses to the area, Uhl said, adding that Decorah and Winneshiek County experienced considerable success in landing large employers such as Deco in 1960, Camcar in 1967, Rockwell-Collins in 1978, Gemini in 1983 and Iowa Rotocast Plastics in 1986.
But by the mid-1980s our country’s dependence on manufacturing began to shift to an economy based more in service and technology, and this shift was demonstrated locally by establishment in 1997 of the former Pinnacle Financial, an accounts receivable company and large employer now known as Radius Global Solutions, LLC.

New emphasis
In Winneshiek County, strong emphasis has been placed on quality-of-life issues as significant keys in further developing the local economy, Uhl said, adding that that is why WCDI has been active in trail development, housing and other similar efforts.
“Education, healthcare, quality of life, recreation and a lot of other community needs will occupy the time of an economic developer in the present day,” Uhl said, adding, “Long gone are the days when economic developers simply chase smokestacks.”
That smokestack chasing can wind up causing a community a lot of disappointment because nationally there are about 15,000 economic development organizations pursuing about 1,500 or fewer major projects each year, according to Uhl.
“That’s very fertile ground for disappointment unless a community is extremely well situated for attraction of such businesses,” he said. “Economic developers nationwide emphasize it is important for their communities to have realistic expectations.”

Housing efforts
WCDI currently is pursuing efforts to improve the housing stock in Decorah and Winneshiek County, leading the recent Community Housing Assessment Team or CHAT study that was presented earlier this year.
The CHAT study undertaken by RDG Planning & Design of Omaha outlined clear steps the city of Decorah and Winneshiek County could take to build up housing for the workforce, Uhl said. The study showed a need for about 300 new housing units in the county over the next 10 years or so, with about 210 of those units being in Decorah alone.

Small business help
WCDI since 2005 has worked closely with the Northeast Iowa Business Network to provide numerous workshops as well as one-on-one consulting and other types of assistance for prospective or existing small businesses.
“Participation in NIBN, which was supported by a $145,000 state grant in 2005, has enabled Winneshiek County businesses to receive more extensive help than they otherwise may have gotten,” Uhl said, adding that collaboration with economic developers in other Northeast Iowa communities has been win-win for all of the six counties participating in NIBN.

Challenges ahead
Winneshiek County and the state of Iowa face significant economic development issues in the coming years, most notably the challenge of providing adequate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and middle-skill level workers to meet employer demand.
Other local challenges will be completing development of Decorah Business Park now that infrastructure to the park will be complete after next year, and figuring out ways for the commercial sector to take advantage of the new Decorah MetroNet fiber-optic system, Uhl said.

Think regionally
When considering economic development, community leaders also need to think more regionally and more cooperatively, Uhl said, adding, “The competition is not the town 20 miles away, the competition is usually at least an ocean away. Our workforce draw does not magically stop at a city or county boundary.”

Past leaders
“It has been my pleasure to work with both the Winneshiek County Development, Inc. and Decorah Jobs boards of directors over the years,” Uhl said, adding, “I’ve learned a lot and always felt we’ve had strong people in place on these boards.”
WCDI board presidents since 1999 include Lindsay Erdman, John Satrom, Keith Bruening, Loren Kiel, Ron Stoskopf, Ben Grimstad, Kerri Johanningmeier, Dave Jordahl and current board president Nina Taylor.