Letter to the Editor: Businesses seek opportunity in Southeast Iowa

Originally published in the Des Moines Register on October 2, 2015.

Southeast Iowa’s economic resurgence is a product of our area’s increased support of current and new businesses of all sizes. As businesses continue to locate to the Great River Region, we can ensure greater economic opportunity, provide quality employment, and support a new entrepreneurial culture and spirit in our communities.

While our little corner of Southeast Iowa encountered significant hardship during the recession, recent investment has safeguarded the economic viability of our area. New construction projects like Silgan Containers and Iowa Fertilizer in addition to expansion projects such as Winegard, Shearer’s Foods, and Pinnacle Foods have combined with small projects like the new facades in downtown Burlington and new business start-ups like Bella Regazza, Bark-n-Play, Majestic Estate, Barn on the Ridge, and my company, Energyficient Systems.

Increased economic opportunity has led to better futures for those who live and work in the Great River Region of Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk. As a member of our area’s business community, I am proud of the employers and entrepreneurs that take the risk, and in turn improve our economy and increase the quality of life for the members of our community. Thanks to the cooperation between the business community in our area, local and state officials, we hope to continue the economic resurgence of our area.

— Chad Palmer, president and CEO of Energyficient Systems, Inc., Co-Chair Entrepreneurship Committee of Greater Burlington Partnership

State OKs tax breaks for fertilizer plant

Originally published on WCFCourier.com by Doug Hines. 
June 20, 2015


DES MOINES (AP) — A state board has approved $25 million in extra tax breaks for a company building a giant fertilizer plant in southeast Iowa.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority Board on Friday approved the tax breaks for the Lee County plant after the Iowa Fertilizer Company pledged to add 11 more jobs. The project’s cost now totals $1.9 billion, and it will employ 180 people.

According to board documents, approval of the request brings the total amount of tax benefits the state has provided to the company to $107.5 million.

Siemens lands new MidAmerican blade order

Originally published in the Burlington Hawk Eye
Written by: Dale Alison, dalison@thehawkeye.com

Siemens Energy will provide blades for 67 new wind turbines MidAmerican Energy said Friday it wants to build in western Iowa.

The project is in addition to blades the Fort Madison manufacturer already is building for MidAmerican. President and CEO Bill Fehrman said the addition will bring MidAmerican’s investment in Iowa wind energy to $6 billion since 2004.

He said Siemens isn’t assured of the new order, but noted it’s an “exceptional company” providing the “highest-quality, lowest cost” blades.

Fehrman made the announcement Friday morning at a press conference with Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Statehouse.

The new developments for a wind farm in Adams County in southwest Iowa and additional turbines for an existing farm in O’Brien County in northwest Iowa will cost up to $280 million, pending approval from the Iowa Utilities Board.

Scheduled for completion by the end of 2015, it would add up to 162 megawatts of new wind generation capacity in the state. Fehrman said as a consequence MidAmerican’s customers’ energy bills likely will be reduced by $93 million over 10 years.

A representative from Siemens could not be reached for comment, but Sen. Chuck Grassley applauded the announcement.

“Renewable energy supports thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars in investment across the country,” he said in a statement. “Wind energy is a big part of the picture and Iowa is at the forefront of taking advantage of wind as a natural resource. Yet more wind energy investment is good news for our state’s energy needs and economic development.”

Grassley considers himself the father of the wind energy tax credit, having sponsored the original legislation. He continues to sponsor numerous extensions, which now extend through 2016.

Coupled with projects already underway in Grundy, Madison, O’Brien and Webster counties, MidAmerican Energy will have about 3,500 megawatts of wind generation capability in Iowa by year-end 2015 – enough to provide energy for the equivalent of about 1.05 million average Iowa households, if the IUB gives MidAmerican a green light.

Branstad was enthusiastic about the announcement.

“MidAmerican Energy’s commitment to wind generation garners long-lasting benefits and makes Iowa a competitive economic force, not only in the United States but also in the world,” he said. “Iowa has attracted major tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, because of our low energy prices and commitment to renewable energy. MidAmerican Energy’s newest wind project will help the state meet the demand for renewable energy that is attracting major companies and high-quality jobs to Iowa.”

The governor pointed out the turbines will generate more than $40 million in additional property tax revenue over the next 30 years in the counties where the turbines are installed. In addition, there also will be payments made to landowners.

Friday’s announcement brings the price tag of MidAmerican’s most recent project to $2.2 billion, further eclipsing the $1.8 billion investment Orascom Construction Industries has in the Iowa Fertilizer Co. plant being built 15 miles from the Fort Madison Siemens’ plant in Wever.

No incentives, other than the production tax credit, will be used in the project outlined Friday, Fehrman said.

“Wind is now the No. 1 source of new electric generating capacity in the country, and Iowa derives a greater percentage of its electricity from wind than any other state,” Reynolds said at the press conference. “By taking advantage of the abundant wind resources we have here in the state, MidAmerican Energy is delivering a sustainable energy solution that will play an increasingly important role in powering Iowa’s future.”

MidAmerican provides power for much of western Iowa, but its territory also dips into the extreme southeast portion of the state to serve Fort Madison, West Point, Donnellson, Denmark and Wever. The company’s average residential rate is 11.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to 2013 figures compiled by the Edison Electric Institute.

Alliant Energy, meanwhile, provides service to cities in much of the rest of eastern Iowa. Its average residential rate is 13.52 cents per kwh, though Rob Hillesland, a spokesman for the Iowa Utilities Board, pointed out a precise apples-to-apples comparison is not possible in regulated environments because other factors, including transmission fees, must be factored into the equation.

Across the country, EEI said average residential rates ranged from 8.37 to 36.88 cents per kwh. The national average is 12.50 cents per kwh.

Alliant has its own electric generation project underway. In June, it started work on a $700 million, 650-megawatt electric generating plant in Marshalltown that will be powered with natural gas.

MidAmerican hires Ft. Madison plant to make wind turbine blades

Written by Amie Steffeneicher, Internet Director - email

FT. MADISON (KWWL) -MidAmerican Energy officials say they have contracted with an Iowa wind turbine blade factory to make all the blades for 448 wind turbines the company is installing in Iowa.

Adam Wright, vice president of wind generation for MidAmerican, says about 500 workers at the Siemens Energy plant in Fort Madison will keep busy for at least the next 10 months making turbine blades for the wind expansion project.

The CEO of Siemens Energy’s wind division Mark Albenze says the MidAmerican order is the largest onshore wind turbine order in the world. It will help secure the jobs at Fort Madison and in a Hutchinson, Kan., plant where the wind turbines are made.

In a statement Monday, U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack said he was “thrilled” with the news.

“I am thrilled with today’s announcement by Siemens and MidAmerican that Iowa will expand its leadership in wind energy production,” Loebsack said. “This announcement means jobs for our highly skilled workforce, and demonstrates the continued strengthening and competitiveness of Iowa manufacturing.

“It also means continuing investment in Iowa’s clean energy infrastructure,” he added. “This is what encouraging our homegrown energy and the Production Tax Credit are all about – jobs and clean, renewable energy sources.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley praised MidAmerican’s decision and said Congress must renew the wind energy tax cut to keep the wind industry growing.

“Wind energy is truly Iowa homegrown energy, and today’s announcement by MidAmerican Energy again shows its job-creating potential,” Braley said. “Yet Washington fails to take notice. This growing Iowa industry is threatened because Congress failed to quickly renew the wind production tax credit before it expires at the end of the year.

“To provide certainty and stability in the industry — and to promote job growth — Congress needs to immediately renew this tax cut when it returns in January,” Braley added.

The Iowa Utilities Board in August approved MidAmerican’s $1.9 billion wind expansion project.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


Fort Madison Sports Complex Groundbreaking Ceremony

Members of the Fort Madison community gathered together to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking of a new sports complex on Thursday June 20, 2013. The project was able to collect over $3.5 million from various donors including the City of Fort Madison, local businesses and individuals to help cover the costs. The city has long sought a new sports complex for area youth programs as well as adult leagues. This project will be an added benefit to the city of Fort Madison.

FMSports1 FMSports2 FMSPorts3 FMSports4

Local Contractors Begin Work on OCI Iowa Fertilizer Construction

Construction begins on Orascom plant near Wever Iowa

by Jim Whitfield


WEVER, IOWA. – A billion dollar investment in Southeast Iowa is beginning to take shape as the Orascom Corporation is starting to build its new fertilizer plant near Wever.

Some of the contractors working at the site are based just a few miles from the construction and that means local companies are getting to help grow the local economy.

Five thousand cubic yards of dirt is being moved to the fertilizer plant site everyday. And it’s up to Meller Excavating based in Lee County to get that job done. They started the project last month and they think it will take them the rest of the summer to get it completed.

“It’s gotten a lot of business for the area. Local gas stations, a lot of local truck drivers, I mean everybody is getting a little piece of the pie on this job. And obviously we’re busy with it,” Scott Meller said.

The Lee County based company says its had to hire additional drivers and buy new trucks for this project. Construction is expected to wrapped up in 2015. After the dirt work is completed more construction will begin. Lee County Economic Development Director Steve Bisenius said this is how the development plan is supposed to be coming together.

“It’s a fantastic project, certainly the largest project we’ve ever seen. And it certainly history in Iowa. But we’re really pleased that the local contractors are involved in it. And the local workers. The drivers and some equipment from Des Moines. It’s been a great boom, a great shot in the arm for us,” Bisenius said.

At the height of the construction on the plant, there are expected to be close to 2,500 construction workers who will help build what officials are calling one of the largest fertilizer plants in the U.S.

Economic development officials also said they expect the plant to create 160 to 170 full-time jobs when it goes on line in two years.



Iowa’s construction work is rebounding, but companies are struggling to find enough skilled laborers to meet the growing demand

More construction workers in demand as projects on the rise: Construction projects are on the rise, and building companies are trying to woo back their former workers, and reach out to area colleges to recruit new help.

Written by
Donnelle Eller
May 30, 2013   |

$9 billion: This year, Iowa is expected to see about $9 billion in large public and private commercial projects and a rebounding housing market.
12,000: Iowa has 12,000 fewer construction jobs now than it did in 2006.
10%: U.S. construction spending increased an average of 10 percent annually for the past two years.
18%: Iowa pay for builders has improved, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, climbing 18 percent since 2007.

During the recession, Jack DeLeon Jr. looked at moving to North Dakota to build homes for some of the thousands of oil workers flocking to the Williston Basin for jobs.

But the shortage of homes included space for the builders constructing them. “At the end of the day, you still have to have some place to park your body,” said the Des Moines home­builder.

DeLeon decided to remain in Iowa and tough out one of the worst building recessions in history. But many builders moved on — going into manufacturing, moving to other states like North Dakota, and retraining for jobs in new industries. Now, builders say they’re beginning to see shortages that they say will likely only grow as big projects ramp up.

“A lot of workers have been out of the construction business for seven years now. And it’s quite likely that most of them have moved on,” said Ken Simonson, an economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry group based in Arlington, Va. “They’ve either been hired in other industries, they’ve gone back to school, or they’ve retired and dropped out of the labor force,” he said.

At the same time, fewer young workers are entering the field, baby boomers are retiring, and demand is growing.

This year, Iowa is expected to see about $9 billion in large public and private commercial projects and a rebounding housing market. Major projects include $2.5 billion in work at state universities, a $238 million renovation at Principal Financial Group’s downtown Des Moines campus, a $100 million expansion of Wells Fargo’s West Des Moines campus, and the first $300 million phase of Facebook’s nearly $1 billion data center in Altoona.

Work also begins this year on two huge fertilizer projects: Orascom Construction Industries is building a $1.8 billion plant near Wever in southeast Iowa and CF Industries plans a $1.7 billion expansion near Sioux City.

“There’s a lot of work out there and a tremendous amount of work coming,” said Kent Brcka, vice president of operations at Henkel Construction Co. in Mason City.

Already, builders are reporting shortages for some skilled workers — steel workers, heavy equipment operators, concrete workers, carpenters and project supervisors — and they say it’s likely to broaden and deepen in the months ahead. “It’s hard to find skilled workers who want to do construction today,” said Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction in Ames. “It’s harder than it was, and I think it’s going to get a lot, lot worse.”

Henkel’s Brcka said northern Iowa has lost workers to hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil fields in North Dakota. “Heavy equipment operators are hard to find because those with experience headed north,” he said.

Master Builders of Iowa estimates the industry will see a shortage of about 2,730 workers annually over the next seven years, based on demand, retirements and the number of new trained workers coming into the industry. That approaches 20,000 workers by 2020.

The builders group is pushing efforts to recruit young workers, with job fairs at high schools and community colleges, Iowa leaders said.

States like Alabama, Georgia and Arizona also are mounting major worker recruitment efforts to attract young workers, said Brian Turmail, the spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. For example, Alabama hired “Dirty Jobs” TV star Mike Rowe to promote the industry to young workers.

Iowa unions also are rebuilding apprenticeship programs and urging former members to return to the industry.

Earl Agan, business manager for plasters and cement masons Local 21, said he’s sent letters to about 80 former members, encouraging their return. Agan realizes it could be a tough sell, especially if workers found jobs that lack the seasonality of construction.

“Some workers will be willing to come back once we’ve got steady work, but some are just gone forever,” said Agan, who also is president of the Central Iowa Building Construction Trades Council, a group of union leaders and contractors focused on worker training.

Iowa has 12,000 fewer construction jobs now than it did in 2006, when construction activity began to decline, and the national jobs deficit is close to 2 million.

U.S. construction workers will need to see long-term sustained improvement before returning, Turmail said. Iowa, Arizona, Texas and Colorado may be seeing some construction shortages, but in many parts of the country, construction workers continue to struggle to find work.

“Why would you go back to the girlfriend who dumped you, if the new one has been pretty loyal?” he said.

Still, some large builders across Iowa are asking some critical workers to delay retiring, using recruitment companies to find workers, and gearing up in-house training.

Mike Tousley, executive vice president at Weitz Construction, said the company has encouraged some experienced project managers to postpone retirement. “We’re having a lot more conversations than we have in the past, but so far we haven’t been too successful in convincing anyone” to continue working, Tous­ley said.

The large Des Moines-based contractor has been hiring both professional and skilled workers since the beginning of the year. The company’s industrial group “is in a hiring frenzy” with construction on Orascom’s Iowa Fertilizer Co. plant construction beginning, Tousley said. Orascom purchased the longtime Iowa company earlier this year and Weitz is a project leader.

“There are lots of applicants, but with the skills set we’re looking for, and the experience we need, it’s been a real challenge, a real struggle,” Tousley said, adding that some of the hardest jobs to fill are project engineers, managers and estimators. The company’s hourly, skilled labor pool is “about as low as it’s been in a long time. But it’s about to mushroom.

“In the past three or four years, we’ve been able to get by. There has been work, but there haven’t been really large projects” like those coming online now, he said.

U.S. construction spending increased an average of 10 percent annually for the past two years, but employment has climbed only an average of 2 percent annually, the Associated General Contractors of America said. “More firms are at the point where they can no longer say we can make do by stretching the hours of workers we have,” said Simonson, the industry economist. “There will be more ‘help wanted’ signs out there.”

Tousley said Weitz hasn’t begun offering hiring bonuses but has used them in the past. “I could see us doing it again in the future,” he said.

Iowa pay for builders has improved, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, climbing 18 percent since 2007. By comparison, manufacturing pay has climbed 11 percent during that time.

Henkel’s Brcka said companies like his will need to rely on subcontractors more frequently to get jobs done — and pay more overtime to the workers he has.

As work on big projects overlaps, that will make managing their completion more difficult, and potentially more costly. “It’s pretty risky just to assume that you’ll find the people that you need,” he said, adding that Henkel has added a training position to help better prepare workers for existing jobs and positions that senior workers will vacate through retirement.

The north Iowa company could add about 10 qualified workers to its current 100-person workforce, he said.

Ned Rasmussen, who leads the Des Moines Area Community College’s building trades program, said he gets three or four calls a day from contractors looking for workers. And he has 45 students interested in his courses but only has room for 25.

“I think the general public sees that there are construction jobs out there,” said Rasmussen, adding that construction enrollment was steady despite the recession. “I think they wanted to retrain for something they thought they’d really enjoy. Now, it’s paying off for them.”

Creighton Cox, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines, said some home builders and their subcontractors are busier than they’ve been in years. “Those who want to hire can’t because the workforce isn’t there,” Cox said. “Others aren’t hiring because they’re still unsure the recovery will last.”

DeLeon, the Des Moines builder, said his business is still struggling. A run-up in large construction projects could reduce the number of competitors he sees for smaller residential and commercial jobs. “I’m doing everything I can to keep our 67-year-old business alive,” said DeLeon, who runs Jack DeLeon Construction with his 83-year-old father, Jack Sr.



Lee County Still Has the Highest Unemployment in the State

Fort Madison Daily Democrat
County Still Leads in Unemployment

While the unemployment rate continues to ease in Lee County, the state of Iowa and the nation, Lee County still holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the state.

According to Iowa Workforce Development, Iowa’s unemployment rate overall for March, which is the most recent numbers available, was 4.9 percent. Lee County at that time, however sat at 7.7 percent.

Those numbers have continued to trend downward in the past year. Last March Iowa’s unemployment rate was 5.3 percent and Lee County’s was 8.3 percent.

Only four counties in Iowa saw an increase in unemployment rate, including the county with the second highest rate of 7.2 percent in Jones County, which is the county directly east of Linn County.

The other counties seeing increases were Bremer, Audobon and Decatur counties.

Several counties had some amazing gains in jobs.

Jasper County, for example, briefly took the title of highest unemployment rate from Lee County last year when it had a 9 percent unemployment rate compared to Lee County’s 8.3.

Jasper County now sits at 6.6 percent unemployment. That is still higher than the state average but moving quickly in the right direction.

Education and health services added 800 jobs in March, leading all sectors in growth. According to IWD, the gain was fueled by hiring in the health care industry with the addition of 900 jobs and more than offset last month’s drop in health services, the first since June 2011.

Manufacturing added 500 jobs with this month’s gain concentrated in nondurable goods factories.

Manufacturing has started 2013 on a positive note, increasing by 3,700 jobs this year. Finance posted the only other gain for March adding 300 jobs and currently is 1,700 jobs higher than the same month one year ago.

On the other hand, leisure and hospitality reported the largest loss in March, down 2,000 jobs. Hiring was slower than expected in arts and entertainment, although accommodations and food services also shed 800 jobs. Construction followed with a loss of 1,300 jobs; although construction in Lee County should be up with workers at the fertilizer plant starting to arrive.

Professional and business services declined by 1,100.

There was a decrease in nonfarm employment of 5,500 in March, which was the first time since December the state has seen a decrease in that area, but nonfarm unemployment is still up 11,000 from this time last year.

IWD reports the decrease is due to weak hiring in seasonal industries like construction, professional and business services and leisure and hospitality.

Even with that hiring slowdown in the nonfarm sectors, numbers have continued to trend upward in the last year with manufacturing leading all sectors with annual job gains of 7,000 jobs or 3.3 percent.

Education and health services are up 2,000 jobs and financial activities is up 1,700.

Information saw the largest job loss from a year ago, losing 1,400 and construction lost 800 jobs from last year.


Federal Grant to Help Southeastern Community College Teach Skills for Manufacturing Jobs

Federal grant hopes to strengthen manufacturing industry in Iowa

Posted: Apr 30, 2013 4:16 PM CDT

By Andy Devine, Multimedia Journalist

Lee County continues to struggle with the highest unemployment rate in Iowa, but officials at Southeastern Community College hope new federal funding will help change that.

The initiative is geared towards boosting the manufacturing industry, and training students for blue collar jobs.

Officials at SCC say they received $600,000 to add new courses, that would give students advanced skills in the in-demand manufacturing industry.

(See “SCC expands Keokuk campus to help unemployed people find jobs”)

Stephen Hickey is a SCC students who says trades work is the kind of work he’s always been good at.

“I was a welder when I was a kid, so factory work. Hands-on stuff,” said Hickey.

Students like Hickey can take the skills they’ve learned in this course and get a job in the manufacturing industry upon completion.

But now thanks to the I-AM federal grant, Hickey has the opportunity to learn more advanced skills to move up in his field.

I-AM grant director Susan Dunek says there’s a need for higher skilled workers in the field.

“It is well documented that we have a mid skill gap here in the state of Iowa and there is a need for workers who are in that mid skill range,” said Dunek.

And with the new funding Dunek says the college hopes to strengthen it’s workforce.

“Skilled jobs are ones that require some type of additional qualifications above and beyond just being able to perform work,” said Dunek.

Dunek says students will have the opportunity to receive certificates in such fields as production, logistics and transportation.

Hickey says he thinks the new courses will benefit people like him who are pursuing a career in manufacturing.

The courses are short-term certificate programs, and are not necessarily part of degree programs.

For more information on classes and start dates, call Southeastern Community College.