A ribbon-cutting ceremony is a beginning for a business that’s opening or expanding in the community. But those celebratory events also represent the culmination of behind-the-scene efforts by business owners, economic development experts, government agencies, elected officials and many others.
Advance Southwest Iowa Corp. is a leader in cultivating Pottawattamie County’s economy, offering a one-stop destination for businesses looking to hang a shingle in Council Bluffs or one of the county’s other 13 cities.
The agency helps businesses navigate regulations, apply for incentives, evaluate sites, connect with partners and otherwise keep the process going to open their doors to customers.
Advance was formed in 2014 to provide a destination for prospective businesses in Council Bluffs to connect to everything needed to open their doors. The agency broadened its service territory last year and now covers all the communities in Pottawattamie County.
“We’re the liaison that keeps the ball moving,” said Paula Hazlewood, Advance’s executive director. “We are the economic development agency for Pottawattamie County — all of Pottawattamie County.”
Niki Ferguson, Advance’s project management coordinator, called the agency a “well-oiled machine” that works with many partners to bring jobs into Pottawattamie County. She said those who aren’t familiar with everything that leads up to a ribbon-cutting ceremony might not appreciate what it takes.
Hazlewood credits the Council Bluffs City Council, the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors and the Iowa West Foundation for having the foresight in 2014 to form Advance and join the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership. They collaborated to ramp up a grassroots economic development organization and are now seeing the benefits of their hard work and persistence.
In addition, Advance works with the Council Bluffs and Omaha Chambers, Mid-American Energy, Black Hills Energy, Council Bluffs Water Works and rural water suppliers, as well as real estate brokers, architectural and engineering firms, developers, lending institutions, site selection companies, Iowa Western Community College, Iowa Economic Development Authority and various other organizations.
“We’re the boots-on-the-ground connector of resources,” Hazlewood said. “Our goal is to be the first point of contact for new businesses as well as existing businesses that are looking to grow in Pottawattamie County.”
Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh said it’s beneficial to have all the communities in the metropolitan area work together to land new businesses because those jobs can employ people anywhere in the region, so it doesn’t make sense for metro area communities to fight for projects against each other.
He said Hazlewood and her team bring expertise in economic development and leverage the success of the metro area in helping to attract businesses to Council Bluffs.
“We’re thrilled to have them working on our behalf,” Walsh said. “(Hazlewood) is start-to-finish the lead on all economic development projects but works closely with the City of Council Bluffs departments to make sure that transition from being a tire-kicker to being actually a business is as seamless as possible.”
Shalimar Mazetis, Advance’s rural development manager, said the agency wants to be a resource to launch and expand businesses outside of Council Bluffs as well.
“We’re making sure that businesses are happy, healthy and thriving in rural Pottawattamie County,” Mazetis said. “We’re also really focused on bringing in good, high-quality jobs, jobs that will allow our residents to make a good “living wage.”
Mazetis said she works a lot with mayors and city clerks, as well as existing employers. In Walnut, for example, Lynn Driver owns two businesses – Emma Jean’s restaurant and lounge and Banana Split retro soda fountain — and is president of the Walnut Area Business Association and Walnut Merchants Association. He said Mazetis has helped Walnut businesses market themselves on social media.
“She’s connected us with resources for some external experience in electronic marketing, Facebook and Twitter and those things,” Driver said. “I’m 60 years old, so Twitter is something that birds do in the yard.”
Driver said Walnut’s businesses are tied together by the need to bring in traffic to the community.
“What every other business in town does affects my business,” Driver said. “We can all work together for a common goal and a common focus, or we can flounder around individually.”
Tim Wichman, chairman of the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors, said it’s critical for all the rural communities in the county to stay on the cutting edge of technology. He said Advance helps with small businesses as well as larger projects, some of which are looking for sprawling tracts of land.
“On the rural side, growth is important to maintain and grow and keep alive the cities outside of Council Bluffs,” Wichman said. “The small businesses are just as important as the big data centers. They still bring jobs to the community, increase the tax base and provide other opportunities in small towns for growth.”
For many years, Wichman said the county wasn’t tapping into the opportunities it had available. With the help of Advance, though, resources are better aligned toward turning opportunities into successes, and each success in the region — whether in Council Bluffs or a rural community — helps fuel growth.
“Things are changing – the opportunities are here,” Wichman said. “We work together as a team, and that’s what it takes to bring any business here, whether it’s a small one or like a Google.”
— Scott Stewart is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. This article was prepared on behalf of Advance Southwest Iowa Corp. Find more information at advancesouthwestiowa.com.