A national association recognized the economic development director for two local electric cooperatives for his work improving the economic climate in the area.
Rick Whalen, from the Butler and Franklin RECs, received the 2018 National Rural Economic Developers Association Leadership Award during the group’s annual conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, held Nov. 7-9. He was selected by a national committee representing electric and telephone co-ops nationwide.
Whalen was surprised when he learned of the honor.
“To be recognized by your peers, it’s probably one of the highest honors you can get,” Whalen told Waverly Newspapers by phone on Monday. “I was humbled by the whole thing.”
According to a press release from the Butler co-op, the award recognizes outstanding leadership in the field of rural economic development. Nominees have demonstrated outstanding leadership in an economic development project resulting in the improvement of the quality of life, creation of new jobs and opportunity for growth and development in rural America.
Among the projects Whalen was the Butler County Logistics Park west of Shell Rock. The site includes the Flint Hills Energy ethanol plant, and Whalen has worked with the Iowa Northern Railroad, Central Iowa Rural Water Cooperative and Jeff Kolb with Butler-Grundy Economic Development to further develop the area.
“We put the electric infrastructure in for free,” Whalen said. “Central Iowa Water put their stuff in for free — they charge a hook-up charge, but they put up a 12-inch water main in through there.
“The sewer goes into Shell Rock. It’s processed in Shell Rock, and Central Iowa Water takes care of that. The railroad owned the land and let us use it to put up a spec building and not have to pay for it until it was sold. It ended up being sold to Zinpro, a company out of Minneapolis. They bought the spec building and finished if off and put another addition onto it.”
He added Butler REC has helped developed logistics parks in Fredericksburg, Greene and Sumner.
The rural economic development movement began in the 1980s during the height of the farm crisis, according to Whalen. Congress appropriated funds to help diversify rural economies and called upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute the money.
“The USDA chose the rural electric co-ops to get the money out in the rural areas, because the association they had with them previous of that,” Whalen recalled.
He added that the Iowa RECs hired Jack Bailey in 1986 to run the Iowa Area Development Group, which got the co-ops involved with economic development.
Whalen has been with co-ops since 1989. Prior to joining the co-op, he owned an electronics business in Hampton.
While with the Franklin REC, the Butler REC manager at the time approached Whalen to see if he’d be interested in becoming the economic development director.
“We met over lunch at The OP (The Other Place) in Waverly,” Whalen said, “and I ended up going to work there.”
He said that economic development is an interesting job.
“We develop industrial parks, put up spec buildings,” he said. “I get to meet with CEOs and entrepreneurs all of the time. I get to meet a lot of very interesting people.
“And it’s fun to be part of putting a deal together.”
Whalen and his wife, Beth, have four grown children: Joe, of Phoenix, works for the University of Phoenix; Elizabeth, of London, works with an internet marketing company; Logan, a chef at the Ankeny Hy-Vee and instructor at the Culinary Institute at Des Moines Area Community College; and Cassandra, who is married to an air traffic controlman with the U.S. Air Force in Colorado. He also has two grandchildren.
Whalen said his job is gratifying because his work has helped make an impact in Northeast Iowa.
“Job creation and wealth creation, that’s the goal behind the whole thing,” he said. “We’re developing, working with companies. I work with Iowa development groups, sometimes, I work trade shows, trying to recruit people to the area. I work with big customers to see what their needs are and if there would be somebody near them who would be a supplier to them that would be an opportunity for us and help improve the economy of Northeast Iowa.”