Looking back at 2018, looking ahead to 2019

The events of 2018 in Greene County will be talked about for a long time. Most people a year ago wouldn’t have guessed that before the end of the year the Greene County Schools and Jefferson would be mentioned in USA Today, the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, yet that’s what happened.

The possibility of Jefferson, IA, being a model of how a small, rural town can share in the employment opportunities and the accompanying economic benefits of the Digital Age put the county on the map. The distance between the Silicon Valley and the Raccoon River Valley got smaller in 2018.

The GreeneCountyNewsOnline archive includes the stories, starting in October 2017, when 2003 Jefferson-Scranton graduate Chris Deal and Home State Bank president Sid Jones presented to the Greene County Schools board the “crazy idea” of building a regional career academy in partnership with Iowa Central Community College, and having it connected to a new high school.

The pair suggested there may be other sources of funding for the career academy and a new gymnasium that would bring the total project cost close to what voters had turned down twice for only a school and gym. Deal and Jones kept working to secure that funding.

Grow Greene County pledged $4.5 million for the gymnasium and auditorium.

The Greene County board of supervisors agreed to fund $5 million – the total cost of building the career academy – with proceeds from tax increment financing, using the first 41 wind turbines in the Beaver Creek Wind Farm.

Retired businessman Richard Finch pledged $100,000 of his own money for the project.

Pillar Technology announced in March that if voters approved the $24.48 million bond issue needed to build the project, the company would locate a forge – Pillar’s chosen name for its workplaces – in Jefferson.

The bond issue was approved April 3 with 68.68 percent “yes” votes and 31.32 percent “no” votes.

The story went beyond a local school construction project to a national topic after Pillar Technology founder Linc Kroeger reached out to Congressman Ro Khanna of California’s 17th Congressional District, a district that includes the Silicon Valley. Kroeger’s Revive, Rebuild, Restore Initiative, a proposal to rebuild rural communities by making them home to innovative technology companies, meshed with Khanna’s efforts to bridge the economic divide between rural and urban areas by putting the job opportunities of the Digital Revolution in small towns.

Kroeger and Khanna assembled a contingent of Silicon Valley execs to visit Jefferson, see what’s underway, and become part of it. Their visit Dec. 8 was covered by the national, state and local press.

Local residents who attended an invitation-only presentation that evening at History Boy Theatre had no idea what to expect. They heard speakers including Microsoft chief technology officer Kevin Scott, Linkedin co-founder Allen Blue, Beyond HQ CEO Madhu Chamarty, venture capitalist Greg Sands and more.

That’s the information that’s been reported locally, regionally, and nationally. The story isn’t finished; there may be many more good things coming to Greene County, or the Silicon Valley ideas may never come to be.

Regardless of what comes next, with or without the Silicon Valley, Greene County students will have a new high school and middle school students won’t attend school in an obsolete structure. High school students in nearby districts, including Paton-Churdan, will be able to get advanced training that can lead to jobs with area manufacturers and businesses.

The intangible gains made in 2018 are just as important.

First, Greene County and Jefferson found the next generation of leaders. The “Our Kids, Our Future: Greene County” committee that promoted the school bond issue included many adults in their 30s. They worked hard and they were rewarded with success. The go-to people for future community efforts are now identified through their participation in the bond issue campaign. Senior leaders are now free to step back, mentor as needed, and relax a bit.

Second, the county supervisors waded into tax increment financing. The framework is set up and the supervisors and county staff are learning to use it. Road and bridge projects can be done in a more timely manner if the supervisors are willing to use TIF revenues. Better roads are good for all of us.

Third, many residents have sensed positive energy and momentum in recent months. There’s a “can do” spirit about, a feeling of competence and hopefulness in the county, particularly in Jefferson. There’s no way to know how long it will last, but it sure is nice while it does. ~Victoria Riley, publisher/editor, GreeneCountyNewsOnline

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