When it comes to economic development efforts, a business site selection specialist said Thursday that Yankton is doing a lot of things right.
However, Don Schjeldahl (pronounced shell-doll) added that the community has a lot it could do to enhance its opportunities.
“I think one of the really strong points of the community is the good organization you have here,” Schjeldahl said at the Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG) annual meeting held at Minerva’s Grill and Bar. “There’s a real interest in doing economic development the right way. That’s what a community needs to be successful.”
YAPG is a private, non-profit community development corporation.
Schjeldahl works as the vice president of renewable energy strategies with the Austin Group, which is based in Cleveland and locates businesses in various industries around the world. He has personally been involved with hundreds of site selection processes during his more than 20 years with the firm and has evaluated the attributes of thousands of communities along the way.
Schjeldahl said Yankton’s assets include the acres of real estate YAPG owns for future development, the share of property that abuts the railroad and the strength of its workforce.
Although he didn’t want to offend anyone, Schjeldahl recommended that the community work to clean up areas that look “trashy.”
“People that live in ag communities, mining towns and timber towns — places like that — they don’t think anything of it,” he said. “The zoning will permit outside storage of materials. Most people will drive by and not see it. But if you’re trying to get investment from the outside, people come from the outside and they’ve got a different sensibility about what looks good and doesn’t look good. Instead of remembering that nice bridge over the river, they’ll remember the piles of old junk cars and tractors. That’s not what you want to leave people with.”
A community gets three chances to make an impression on site selectors, Schjeldahl said: getting its brand out initially to garner interest, demonstrating it is the right place for a project and then delivering on promises made during negotiations.
“You have to do everything right to stay in the game,” he stated. “Communities are thrown out (as a possible site) for really stupid reasons sometimes. Maybe they misrepresented themselves. They may not have given enough information. Site selectors are always looking for you to mess up. We want you to show a bad side. That means we can throw you out and catch the early plane back home. The idea is, the one left standing gets the project.”
South Dakota is often touted as a cheap place to do business, especially because of its low labor costs. However, Schjeldahl said that today wages have largely leveled out and cheap labor can be found in any state. Smart communities don’t race to the bottom. Instead, they do things like invest in a good workforce and make sure they are welcoming to prospective and existing businesses.
Sectors that are growing now include aerospace, space, health care and renewable energy, Schjeldahl said.
If South Dakota wants a real chance at becoming a player in the renewable energy sector, where Schjeldahl has focused his attention for the last several years, it must develop a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). A RPS is a regulation that requires the increased production of energy from renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. Dozens of states have them, and they are a target for businesses in the field because those developers know there will be a market for their product. States like South Dakota that don’t have a RPS, Schjeldahl said, are immediately crossed off the list of possible locations.
With the right strategy, Schjeldahl said he believes the Yankton area could see development in that field.
“The value chain in different sectors such as wind is complicated,” he stated. “There are lots of pieces to it. Yankton is not going to get everything. You’re not going to get all the pieces of the project. But you certainly have the workforce, the real estate assets and the wherewithal to provide pieces and parts to that supply chain. It’s really a matter of going out and selling yourselves on that. You’ve got to pick the pieces of the supply chain that make the most sense to the community.”
Schjeldahl said that Yankton exceeded the preconceived image of it he had before visiting it for the first time this week. With that in mind, he ended his speech on a positive note.
“I really felt good about this place,” Schjeldahl said. “It’s a very unique place in the world … I hope to come back here with a good project someday soon.”
Prior to Schjeldahl’s address, Yankton Economic Development Director Mike Dellinger noted that the economy in Yankton has turned a corner. Employment has improved since the relatively high levels of joblessness seen in 2009 and several manufacturers are expanding.
He said it would be good for the community to build another spec building and to extend utilities into its east industrial park to open up opportunities for the future.