The right stuff: Ag-based, but diverse economy
By Dan Campbell, Editor
helps Sioux County thrive
Something right is going on in Sioux County, Iowa.
While many rural Midwest communities are sliding into
oblivion as their stores close and their schools and
churches migrate away with their young people, this
northwest Iowa county’s two largest towns Sioux Center
and Orange City have growing populations and are
adding new businesses and services.
Signs of progress abound in Sioux Center, population
6,500. It is home to a fully developed, 120-acre industrial
park, the new 100,000-square-foot Centre Mall and
excellent public and private schools and a 4-year college.
It even has a problem many rural towns would love
to share: a tight housing market.
The most visible manifestation of its thriving business
sector is a $15-million Pella window assembly plant,
which opened about 2 years ago on the northern edge of
town. The plant employs about 500 workers. It has been a
boon not only to Sioux Center, but the entire region, with
workers commuting from 90 different zip codes.
Among other ag-related employers here is Sioux
Automation, which builds livestock feed wagons and
other farm equipment, Sioux Preme Pack hog processing
and Trans Ova Genetics, which performs beef and
dairy cattle embryo transfers either in its clinic or on
farms anywhere in the nation.
The town’s ability to attract new businesses boils
down to its people, a favorable business environment
and amenities that offer a high quality of life, says Mayor
Dale Den Herder, a fourth generation resident. His
Dutch ancestors first homesteaded here in 1872, living in
a sod hut even before Sioux Center was founded in 1891.
He, like others, attributes much of Sioux Center’s success
to an old-fashioned work ethic, a willingness to try
new things, nurturing families and a deep spiritual faith
that, together, forge a strong sense of community.
Between 1990 and 2000, Sioux Center’s population
rose 18 percent. “That bucks the trend you will see in
most rural areas,” Den Herder notes. Jobs, of course,
are the key to a stable or growing population. Thirty
years ago the city had only 100 manufacturing jobs.
Today, it has more than 2,300.
He also has high praise for
the Farmers Co-op Society,
not only for being “a strong
friend of farmers that has
helped to modernize the
region’s livestock industry, but
for also being a leader in promoting
Den Herder is also the president
of American State Bank,
which has a $250 million loan
portfolio that reflects the diversification occurring in the
economy here. A decade or so ago, ag accounted for
about 70 percent of those loans, but that has since dipped
to about 40 percent.
While Sioux Center, Orange City and some other area
towns are thriving, some other rural towns in the region
are struggling just to hold even, and others are seeing
their vitality slowly slip away.
“You don’t have to travel too far to find a lot of hurt
going on,” says Den Herder. “We could be looked upon
as something of an island of prosperity.”
The biggest factor in feeding that prosperity is a
“motivated, educated workforce people who take
pride in what they do,” says Paul Clousing, assistant city
manager and director of the Sioux Center Economic
Development Corporation. The available labor pool is
larger than is readily apparent from the rural landscape.
While there are no large cities Sioux Center is the
largest city in a six-county region there are more people
tucked away in all those little towns and farms than
one might think. About 100,000 people live within a 30
mile radius of the Sioux Center, Clousing notes.
“Bio technology is the newest wrinkle here,” Clousing
says, adding that the town now has three or four biotech
businesses that employ about 200 workers.
Sioux Pharm Inc. is a bio-tech firm that extracts
chondroitin sulfate from bovine tracheas, then purifies
the product into pills, called Chondropure, which brings
relief to arthritis sufferers. Dr. Allan Kramer, the company
president, says Sioux Pharm is the nation’s largest
producer of this medicine.
He employs 25 workers, and says a business owner
would be hard pressed to find a better labor pool than in
northwest Iowa. He also gives Sioux Center strong
marks for its “pro-business” orientation and its good
highway and rail system. The state of Iowa was helpful
to him in providing grants for value-added business
development, Kramer says, and the local livestock
industry naturally makes for a good source of raw product
for the company.
A thriving college
Dordt College, a 1,400 student college affiliated with
the Christian Reformed Church, attracts students from
36 states, six Canadian provinces and nine foreign countries.
The most recent addition to the campus is a $12.5
million Campus Center building, slated to open this
month, that will house student services offices, the business
department, a bowling alley and a snack bar.
The college boasts two new dormitories and a fairly
new recreation center, which features an indoor track.
It also operates a research farm where students can get
hands-on experience in crop and livestock science.
Sioux Center’s motto, “progress through cooperation,”
is certainly true of the relationship of the town and
college, says Clousing. The college, local schools and
town have joined forces to put up much of the $9.1 million
needed to replace the city’s aging community swimming
pool with a state-of-the-art pool complex, called
the All-Seasons Center. The state of Iowa and local
phone company also contributed needed funds.
The pool complex will feature both indoor and outdoor
pools, including a “plunge pool” with tall slides,
an “aquatic family fun park” with other water amusements
and a six-lane lap pool. The development will
also include an ice rink that will become the home of
the Dordt College hockey team, the Blades. It is the
type of recreational facility rarely found in a town of
this size, and one which boosts the quality of life that
helps attract families and young people to the area, Den
The key to attracting the 263,000-square-foot Pella window
plant was Sioux Center’s “ability to
put together an entire package,” says
Clousing. Pella needed not only a 50-acre parcel of land, but adequate
access roads and a bypass route so that
truck traffic from the plant would not
impact downtown Sioux Center.
The development corporation and City
of Sioux Center found a good site and were
able to get grants from the Iowa Department
of Transportation to help with the
needed road work. Under Iowa’s New
Jobs and Income program, Sioux Center
was also able to help Pella secure a partial
income tax reduction for 10 years as
another incentive to build within the state.
Of course, reliable, low-cost utility
service is also a must for an industry of
this size, and Sioux Center’s municipal
utility has a good reputation. It worked
with the state to get grants that helped defray some of the
costs of developing the plant site.
Once before, Sioux Center had been a finalist under consideration
for a Pella plant, only to lose out on the final cut to
another community. So when Pella began looking to expand
again, Sioux Center was already on the list, says Clousing.
The Pella plant, which makes architectural-series windows,
does not begin assembling them until it receives an
order, but then builds and ships them within seven days of
the order receipt, says Dale Zevenbergen,
scheduling manager for the plant.
The plant runs two shifts daily, but is
perhaps somewhat unusual in that it
runs a day and a graveyard shift, shutting
down in the evening. That’s a “family
friendly” schedule the workers voted
for so that parents could be home
evenings with their children.
Orange City blooming
Like its annual Tulip Festival, which
draws 100,000 people every spring,
Orange City is also blooming. Located
about 10 miles to the southeast of
Sioux Center, the two towns have many
similarities. They are about the same
size, have a similar economic mix of
industry both ag and non-ag and
are home to emerging, high-tech businesses
and thriving 4-year colleges. The people of both
communities are primarily of Dutch ancestry
Major employers in Orange City include Diamond-Vogel
Paints, Advanced Brands, a producer of boxed beef and
pork products, American Identity, a maker of promotional
products, and Northwestern College.
Med Tec is a local high-tech business that develops and
manufactures radiation oncology equipment, used to position
and stabilize cancer patients receiving radiation treatment.
The company started in Dallas, Texas, in 1982, but
relocated about 12 years ago to Orange City, the home town
of founder Clayton Paul Korver. It has been expanding ever
since, and today has a work force of 100 and growing.
Bryan Kooi, Med Tec’s human resources manager, says
the company attracts and keeps good workers with competitive
wages and benefits and a comfortable, clean work
environment where “having fun on the job is part of our corporate
philosophy.” The company also offers “family-friendly
work schedules” that provide flexibility for employees to
balance family and work commitments.
Its products are sold in 90 countries around the world.
Foreign competition is stiff, so research and development is
a big part of the work. Its special niche is oncology accessories,
an example being a plastic mask that melts in warm
water to the exact form of a patient’s face, and is then used
to stabilize the head during radiation treatments.
Even Med Tec’s building and board room boast a hightech
look that has won plaudits for architect Larry Leslie,
from nearby Alton.
Med Tec’s owner decided to return to Orange City
because of the good things about small-town America. “It’s
safe, with a very low crime rate, has good schools and
affordable housing,” Kooi notes. And the two colleges in
close proximity offer wonderful cultural events not typically
found in a rural area. Other recreational amenities include a
nearby 18-hole golf course and top-notch boating and fishing
about one hour away at Lake Okoboji.
Northwestern College, affiliated with the Reformed
Church in America, is home to about 1,200 students, who
also come from all over the nation. Construction crews have
been busy on the campus, recently putting the finishing
touches on a new, $6 million theater arts center. This will
help bring more cultural attractions to the city.
James Plagge, president of Northwestern State Bank in
Orange City, says both Northwestern College and Dordt College
have remained true to their religious roots, while many
other church-affiliated liberal arts colleges have severed
their church connections. “As a result, a lot of those small
colleges are now a dime a dozen, with little to differentiate
themselves; many are suffering. But there are still a lot of
students out there who want to attend a Christian college,
and these two schools are thriving.” He also noted that a
sizable portion of the alumni are also pleased with the
church’s ongoing role with the colleges, and have been gracious
with their support.
One thing Sioux County has been lacking is a movie theater,
but that void was recently filled with a new, six-screen
cinema in Orange City. Plagge’s bank worked with USDA
Rural Development on an $850,000 Business and Industry
Guaranteed loan to finance the theater, which he says is
doing very well. “USDA was great to work with we couldn’t
have done that package without them,” Plagge says.