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Volunteers helping push Jackson forward

Jackson’s Industrial Park is home to a number of businesses. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

JACKSON — Clayton Lewis has been involved with Jackson economic development in one way or another for 18 years over two different stints.

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“I’ve seen a lot of change take place in Jackson since I originally came to Jackson,” said Lewis, who operates Lewis Chiropractic in town.

Lewis was involved with the city for 10 years, took 10 years off to be on the school board and is now serving for the second time on the Jackson Economic Development Corp. (JEDC), which is a private nonprofit volunteer organization.

“We facilitate the existing industries to expand, and we facilitate new businesses to come to town,” Lewis explained.

It’s those people willing to donate their time that makes the difference in a town like Jackson, said Economic Development Coordinator Sue Pirsig.

“The average JEDC member spends five or six hours per month in meetings,” Pirsig said. “You can’t tell me that it doesn’t make a difference in a community. I can’t put in enough hours as the economic developer, one person, to do what we can do as a community because of volunteers. I credit the volunteers.”

With 18 members on the board, the JEDC is volunteering 90 hours a month to the city.

“They keep coming back. It’s not like they disappear because we are expecting too much of them,” Pirsig said. “They wouldn’t continue to do it if they weren’t seeing results. But they work hard to see those results. I’ve been doing economic development for 25 years, and I have never been in a community like Jackson, just the activity level and the volunteerism and wanting the community to succeed on a broader basis.”

While JEDC is working toward recruiting and retaining business in town, the Jackson Economic Development Authority (EDA) is a volunteer group working on the housing needs of the city. A lot of the need is in rental housing.

With the growth of the businesses in Jackson, housing continues to be a big area of concern.

“The economy is growing in Jackson,” said DeeAnna Bakken, secretary/treasurer of the EDA and executive director of the Jackson Housing and Redevelopment Authority. “The rate is different in this area than it is across Greater Minnesota. There are areas that have a lot of jobs and a lot of new opportunities, but we need to have the people to fill the jobs and the people have to have somewhere to live to come to our community.”

JEDC is taking care of business

One of the first things Lewis was involved in was an expansion by Ag-Chem, which was being recruited to leave the area at the time. However, the company stayed and became AGCO, the largest employer in town.

“For a town of 3,500 people to have 2,300 manufacturing jobs is just unheard of,” Lewis said. “Even through the economic recession or downturn, we were growing and flourishing because of the industries we had in town.”

Because of what the company has become, other industries have moved into town.

“We’re just starting to see that aspect of that take off,” Lewis said. “We’re just starting to see people who do a lot of business with AGCO want to be close to them. We’re getting more and more jobs in town just because of that.”

He pointed to Hitch Doc as one of the businesses that has come to town. TSE (Technical Services for Electronics) is another business that has recently completed an expansion.

The secret? That’s simple, Lewis said.

“I think it’s the industries that we’ve had,” he said. “There’s the old adage, ‘You have to take care of the ones who are there,’ and we’ve done that. They’ve continued to grow because of that. I’ll go back to the original development corporation. If we didn’t have them, our existing development corporation wouldn’t work. We have 18 people and we’re all volunteers — we don’t get paid a dime. But when Jackson does well, so do we.”

The group of board members is diverse. It includes the mayor, a city council member, an attorney, two bank presidents, a representative from the college and the county coordinator. There are also a number of private business people on the board.

“We have a lot diversity on the board to allows us to think outside the box,” Lewis said. “We’re constantly thinking about ‘How can we do this to make this better’ or ‘How can we do this to get this guy in town?’ This last purchase that we did with 100 acres just on top of the hill across from the golf course — as soon as we made that available for development, we’ve seen a lot of interest.”

“If we didn’t have those relationships with our businesses, they could say, ‘You know what, I don’t care about Jackson, let’s just walk away,’” Pirsig said. “But they go golfing with these people, they go to church with these people, their kids are together in school or whatever. There are these relationships built and carried on that really make a difference to those businesses.”

Housing needs

Growth doesn’t come without issues, however.

According to the housing study completed a year ago, Jackson needs between 66 and 74 rental units over the next five years. In the same time frame, the city needs between 14 and 16 new homes.

“We’re at this cliff,” current EDA chairman Rocky Sieler said. “We have an opportunity to really take off like a boom town, but we are stagnant right now because we’re lacking in workforce housing. The people who work out in our industrial park, 70 percent of them don’t live in our zip code. We’re drawing from about as far away as we can to get people here to work. But if we don’t create housing for them, we’re not going to be able to get them to locate here.”

Through the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, Jackson was awarded a challenge grant from Minnesota Housing to put toward a 48-unit townhome project.

“That was a huge part of making this project go forward,” Bakken said. “That gap, we had no other way to fill it. We had no other Plan B, I would say, figured out. That was a huge success day for us. It was a big thing for our community to receive the Challenge Grant.”

The EDA has other options as well, including Sunset View.

“We had two different phases of Sunset View lots for sale and got infrastructure for the building of new sites,” Bakken said. “That provided a space for a lot of the homeowners in town to build their own home. Then their units went into the market and were absorbed fairly quickly, which created new housing in our community.”

There are still lots available for new construction, however, and those lots are even half-price.

To move forward with more significant progress, the EDA realizes it must be accomplished through partnerships.

“There are a number of different partners within our community and a number of different partners that we’re thrilled to work with who are outside our community, too,” Bakken said. “We’ve come a long ways, and we want to continue in the path that we’re headed. We know it’s partnerships that get us there.”

One of the toughest issues is Jackson has already used a lot of the resources available. Now, it’s time to look other places.

“Part of it is, I think, we’re trying to turn over rocks and see if there’s something that we’re missing,” Sieler said.

“The other next step is continuing conversations with Minnesota Housing because they said they would like to figure out ways for communities where they share the risk because that is their biggest concern,” Bakken said. “It’s kind of the cart before the horse thing is their challenge. They struggle with how do we share the risk. I think we need to continue those conversations with them on how to diminish the risk or share the risk for them to participate in our communities — not only for us but for others that may follow in the future.”

Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.