INDEPENDENCE – A recent Bulletin Journal help wanted ad stated in part: “seeking an experienced professional to lead an established county-wide economic development organization. Responsibilities include, but are not limited to, business retention and recruitment, fundraising, project management, and community development.”
It should have added: “Able to fill big shoes.”
Buchanan County Economic Development Director George Lake is retiring at the end of June. Among other jobs, he has spent 20 years in economic development.
A Brief Look Back
George graduated from St. John High School in 1972. Following his older brother’s example, he joined the Air Force, serving as a medic in the 657th Tactical Field Hospital at Clark Air Force Base in The Philippines during the Vietnam War era. Among his memories from his service days was receiving evacuees from the fall of Saigon in April 1975. He was discharged in December 1975.
George went on to matriculate at Loras College in Dubuque, where he studied education and political science.
“I invested 15 years as a secondary teacher and coach,” he said.
George left teaching and began his career in economic development.
“I still consider myself an educator,” George said.
George worked as the Iowa State University Extension director for Madison County, then returned home to Independence in 1998 when he was hired as the director of Buchanan County Economic Development Commission (BCEDC).
He took a break from economic development to spend time with his young family for a few years before accepting the position of president of Marion Economic Development. In 2014, he took the opportunity to return to work for Buchanan County Economic Development.
George notes that his decision to retire is rooted in the fact he is approaching a certain age and has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. He is proud of his accomplishments as an economic developer. Over time, he has seen communities are more willing to work together.
“If something is good for one, it’s good for all,” he said. “Economic development does not stop at the city limits or the county line.”
He has been showing area communities and businesses that with the Internet and other technology, corporations can view site information online and not send out people to scout locations.
“It’s important [for businesses] to have very efficient and productive websites,” he said.
He also stated the importance of being part of a regional group that can show unity and a variety of assets (i.e., workforce, infrastructure, quality of life amenities).
One of the recent projects George is proud of is the completion of a county-wide housing needs assessment.
In August 2016, BCEDC announced it had been awarded a USDA Rural Business Development grant that paid nearly half of the $40,000 study cost. The remainder was paid by funds pooled from area businesses to the BCEDC. According to Brian Schoon of INRCOG, who administered the project, the project took about four months to organize and 13 to 14 months to complete.
“To be eligible for state and federal financial assistance and low-interest loans, you have to prove [the needs],” said George.
Out of that assessment came two major opportunities for Independence. The day after the study was released, George was contacted by an out-of-county developer, Kyle Skogman from Cedar Rapids. The Skogman organization is now working on 14 lots north of the Independence Aquatic Center. Another business, Echo Development of Cedar Falls, also looked over Independence and is in the final stages of building a complex featuring a total of 48 apartments off Enterprise Drive near Highway 20.
“People want to live in the communities they work in,” noted George.
Other successful programs included “Lunch & Learn” for businesses and a leadership development series for anyone wanting to learn more. The leadership classes averaged about 12 participants per session. Not only did participants learn about working with volunteers, running meetings, and project management, they shared their own ideas and inspirations with classmates.
“Good things come from citizens,” said George. “That’s how Winthrop got pickleball courts.”
Another project George is proud of is having the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) from UNI work with local entrepreneurs. Over the course of six years, more than 40 businesses were assisted in starting or growing.
George also reiterated the importance of citizens completing the census forms and submitting them.
“It is so incredibly important,” he said.
Even with all of projects he has worked to accomplish with his board and the communities, he says there is always more to do. He feels the next director will have to be able to wear many hats and be able to communicate well and understand the needs of everyone – from a small-town business owner to a large corporate developer. The person will have to continue to work well with local, regional, and state entities. They will also have to understand the latest technology and social media platforms.
In retirement, George looks to spend more time outdoors gardening and fishing.
“I’ll pursue some of my bad habits,” he joked.
He’ll stay involved with church and civic organizations, and maybe get a part-time job.
“I want to stay active.” he said. “I’ve been blessed by having this job and working with forward-thinking people who want to better their communities.”
As George is leaving, several associates have offered their feelings and comments on working with him.
“Being on the BCEDC board and working with George has been a pleasure,” said Clayton Ohrt. “George was always thinking ahead on ideas and looking into the future with the best interest in mind for Buchanan County. He was always considerate and respectful of the BCEDC board’s visions and desires. George was a key and team player in getting the veterans’ memorial to become a reality, located on the courthouse lawn, and was a joy to work with on the project. Two of George’s talents that I am aware of are beer making and storytelling (gift of gab).”
“I have enjoyed getting to know George better over the years as our director,” said BCEDC board member and Independence Mayor Bonita Davis. “He has taken his job seriously and kept everyone informed of changes and opportunities. I think George will stay busy with retirement and hope he will be able to travel for fun. I will need to contact him frequently so he doesn’t forget my name. He is a good guy and the board will miss his conversations.”
“I joined the Small Business Development Center at the University of Northern Iowa in late 2016,” said Amy Dutton, regional director for America’s SBDC – Iowa. “Our center serves nine counties and George Lake was one of the first economic developers to reach out to collaborate with me. Over our time working together, I’ve had the pleasure of joining George in speaking with numerous clients exploring business in Buchanan County and even a few looking to expand operations. George has always demonstrated his desire to see small businesses get good information and to succeed. While I look forward to continuing to partner with Buchanan County Economic Development, I will miss George Lake’s leadership and enthusiasm.”
“I always enjoyed working with George. Both times,” said Brian Schoon of INRCOG, who worked on the housing assessment. “He is very cerebral – asks questions and was very professional. He has a tremendous sense of humor.”
“I have enjoyed working with George over the last three years and tapping into his wealth of knowledge regarding economic development,” said Lisa Kremer, communication specialist for BCEDC. “He has a real love of Buchanan County as well as a passion for economic development, which shows in the quality work he has done over his time as economic development director. I will miss working with him and wish him the best in his retirement.”
The Buchanan County Economic Development board has been in the process of interviewing candidates and is expected to announce the new director after meeting at the end of May.