November 2, 2017

Ken Paxton, one of Iowa’s more intrepid economic-development advocates, lays out his goal for Jefferson in no-holds-barred terms.

“My goal when I came here seven years ago was to make us better than Pella,” Paxton said last Friday during the rollout of Greene County’s Vision 2020 plan. “This just takes us over the top.”

Far from an insult to Pella, one of Iowa’s showcase small cities, the challenge is a compliment to the Tulip Town’s progressivity, its forward-looking growth.

Jefferson is well on its way toward building a Pella-like reputation with the Vision 2020 Plan, a comprehensive, 10-year, $46 million blueprint for the county seat and surrounding area.

It’s also reasonable, smart and attainable — a doable document.

Norm Fandel, a leader in the Greene County Development Corporation (and an intrepid one at that), has said the nonprofit associated with the casino, Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation, shouldn’t just be in the cleaning and dusting business when it comes to public-works projects. It should back game-changing, transformational vision.

With the generosity of Wild Rose Casino & Resorts, Jefferson did what Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” could only imagine — a lassoing of the moon, figuratively, yes, but literally, in a sense, too.

The casino-connected nonprofit distributes about $1.2 million annually to charitable and public-minded endeavors. This means Vision 2020 is jump-started before it even starts.

Some 20 to 25 percent of the funding could come from the nonprofit, and as consumer traffic increases in Jefferson, so does casino revenue, meaning Vision 2020, long term, Rocky Mountain snowballs good things for the region.

This is why Zachary Mannheimer, the Vision 2020 consultant can say, “Don’t lead with the money, lead with the opportunity.”

Vision 2020, developed by a diverse group of Greene Countians, countains many elements.

Here’s what attracts my attention:

— It’s pure genius to link to an Iowa Central Community College campus/career academy to a plan to revitalize the Greene County Community Schools.

With a 2.3 percent unemployment rate in September, Greene County has one of the lowest jobless figures in the region. We have positions open here. Now we need the trained people to fill them.

The academy will help do that, while allowing high school kids from around the area (many of whom will travel to Jefferson for classes) to develop real-world, money-making skills.

What’s more, you have the formidable academic and economic-development influence of the community college right here in Jefferson.

— The 3D printing of workforce rental housing in Paton. This type of printing is revolutionizing life. Robotics and other cutting-edge techonolgy blend for the construction of just about any object you can imagine, including, yes, houses and apartments and other structures.

Greene Countians would be living in the future before other people even know the future is here, should this facet of Vision 2020 take hold.

Of course, the $46 million figure is a gulper, a throat-gummer, even.

And some of the ideas strike one at first as being in the run-before-we-walk-or-crawl category.

But rural Iowa doesn’t have the luxury of moving at Sunday-lemonade-on-the-front-porch speed any longer.

“There are a lot of rural communities in our state that are dying — they’re going away,” Paxton said.

He’s right. Our family-owned newspapers have covered hundreds of small towns in Iowa. Not all of them will make it.

Don’t coffee shop Vision 2020 to death with yesterday’s wisdom.

Greene County is geographically and economically positioned to make Vision 2020 work.

Coming off the success of the casino, a seeming pipe dream less than a decade ago, we know now our strength as rural Iowans is greater than we thought — or the people in the cities give us credit for having.

What separates successful small towns from also-rans, from the forlorn reaches of rural Iowa time left behind? Many things. But at the top of the list is the willingness, the trust, the open-mindedness to support other people’s ideas, to fight and support projects as your own understanding of them matures.

Life in 2017 moves fast. It will only accelerate by 2025.

Greene County’s leaders, the people behind 2020, are daring to see the future, prepare for it.

There will be hits and misses, but I’d rather fight than lay down and watch all of rural Iowa’s young people move to those new subdivisions in Grimes or Waukee. We can’t compete against the modern suburbs by being timid.

Count me in on the Vision 2020 journey with eyes and heart wide open — even as I endeavor to wrap my mind around it all.