Home-grown businesses dominant in county
More than most places in Iowa, Washington County is a start-up area, with most currently operating businesses having been a local person’s dream that was made into reality.
Washington Economic Development Group (WEDG) director Ed Raber said even most of the banks in Washington were originally entrepreneurial endeavors. Washington County Hospital and Clinics was once the brainchild of a group of people who felt the need for a hospital in the county. The United Presbyterian Home was started when a group of people got together and made it happen. An entrepreneur originally created the YMCA of Washington County. He said the great majority of businesses in the county were once entrepreneurial starts. He said the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort was also created as an entrepreneurial endeavor.
“Most of the businesses in downtown Washington, in downtown Kalona, in downtown Wellman, you name it, they were all entrepreneurial start-ups,” Raber said. “That is the way I view Washington County. There are other parts of Iowa where the number of Fortune 500 companies have located there because they are on the Mississippi or are on the right set of railroad tracks or some other crossroad. That has tended not to be Washington County.”
According to statistics, 88 percent of businesses in Washington County have fewer than 100 employees and are considered a small businesses. Raber said most of the economy, including the agricultural and livestock industry, is home-grown. He said for over 100 years businesses have been starting and infrastructure has built around it.
Raber said most Washington County businesses were built locally, either by someone from here or by someone who identified a reason to be in the county.
“One of the neat things about an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that once you reach a critical mass, you attract people to that to work in that sector,” Raber said. “You also have people willing to begin new market niches inside that sector. You really have that with Washington County’s livestock sector.”
The entrepreneurial ecosystem has, over a few generations, built a strong economic climate, Raber said. He said this is very rare in the Midwest and he believes the reason many young people have returned to the area after leaving is because they can operate a business within a family environment. ¬
He also said that area companies have evolved over the years to fit in certain niches they originally did not pursue. Raber cited that Bazooka Farmstar originally didn’t specialize in fertilizer management, but have developed into a company where that is much of what they do. There are a number of examples of businesses and private individuals that have built a business by providing some kind of support to the large agricultural field in the area.
“This does not exist a little ways from Washington County,” Raber said.
Recently there has been a surge in the solar industry in Washington County. Raber said some companies provide solar energy-gathering items, while other companies install the equipment. ¬
Raber also commented that Modine Manufacturing, which left Washington last year, originally came to Washington because they were able to buy a small area business.
When the City of Washington opened its 30-acre business park next to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, it was with the idea that small businesses would have land to construct a building in order to grow a business.
Raber said he expects most of the lots to be filled with buildings from area businesses that have a reason to remain in Washington County. He described the growth of many companies, as beginning in someone’s home and expanding in space as the business expands. He believes the best prospect to purchase a lot is a business that already exists and wishes to expand.
“There are people who have expressed an interest in growing their business,” Raber said. “As we have put that in front of them, no one has said they would do it, but this is something that is going to take some time.”
Raber hopes that people whose businesses have been doing well will consider the park. He said another option is that businesses that wish to rent can find a developer who is willing to construct a building on one of the lots to rent to the business.
Also, as the director of WEDG, Raber regularly works with entrepreneurs who are attempting to grow a business, as do partner groups Main Street Washington and the Washington Chamber of Commerce. Raber says WEDG tends to focus on non-retail businesses.
The main resource WEDG offers is being a networking group between businesses. Raber said he has been able to put businesses together for mutual benefit.
“I can take those entrepreneurs and hook them up with other businesses really at a moment’s notice,” Raber said. “I think Washington County benefits from having a networked business community and the ability for a business to lean on another business.”
He said WEDG also has outside resources that can be made available to budding businesses, including help from nonprofit organizations that can provide technical assistance on many things, including market information. These include the Small Business Development Center at the University of Iowa and the Entrepreneurial Development Center in Cedar Rapids.