Atkins hired as VDC’s new executive director

Atkins hired as VDC's new executive director by David Lias A man largely responsible for giving the ailing South Dakota State Fair a well-needed shot in the arm has been hired as the executive director of the Vermillion Development Company.

Craig Atkins, a Huron native and graduate of The University of South Dakota, will begin his duties in Vermillion April 23.

He will end his four-year reign as manager of the State Fair in mid-April. He brings to Vermillion a wealth of economic development experience.

"Craig brings the right combination of experience and relationships along with energy and enthusiasm to the position," said John Paulson, president of the Vermillion Development Company Board of Directors. "He also brings an exciting vision that will enable the Vermillion Development Company, working with the Chamber, city, county and USD, to realize its full potential in serving the economic development needs of the community."

Vermillion has potential

Atkins said he took a serious interest in the Vermillion job because of several factors that already are in place.

"There is a lot of potential," he said. "The development corporation and the city both have a lot of land to work with. That was encouraging, and I think there is some great potential in Vermillion with the ag economy and the university that can really be tied together in a successful effort."

The southeast corner of South Dakota has a great advantage in terms of economic development activity because it is proving to be one of the more attractive areas of the state, he added.

"One of the things that I think I can bring to the position in Vermillion is not only the ability to develop some long term philosophies but also the ability to respond tomorrow, if we had to, to a prospect coming in without having to learn where all the different resources are in the state or region," Atkins said.

He said his first challenge will be to get to know Vermillion's business community, and the people who support and promote the city.

"Those are things that I'm looking forward to," he said. "There are things that I think need to be done in Vermillion. The city is at a turning point, quite honestly, and I think there are some opportunities there."

A goal-oriented approach

Atkins' goals for Vermillion include further development of local economic resources.

"One of the things I've talked about a lot is the need to come up with a local resource, such as a revolving loan fund or whatever it may be, to assist with business recruitment," he said. "I think a community that has as much to sell as Vermillion does ought to be out telling people about it, and you can't just depend on the prospects or leads coming to you. I see there being a real proactive approach in that area."

Atkins knows that all of his goals can't be accomplished overnight.

"A lot of it is going to take time," he said. "Some of these things are probably already in place to an extent, and I'm just going to have to get there and figure out what pieces of the puzzle may be missing. There's not any one single community that has all the parts put together, but at least we can maybe try to determine what the priorities should be and go from there."

Atkins' resume includes nearly four years as executive development director in Redfield, and a stint in Pierre as a development specialist for the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

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On-the-job experience

Atkins served as Redfield's first full-time economic development staff person in the early 1990s. While there, he focused on developing the community's industrial park and revolving loan fund and worked on recruiting new industry, including an attempt to persuade the federal government to locate a new Job Corps facility on the grounds of the South Dakota Developmental Center.

"After that, I went to Pierre and went to work with the Governor's Office of Economic Development," he said. "I got to work with a lot of small communities across the state. I had an opportunity to work on things like spec buildings, loan development funds and I helped those communities develop proposals where they had prospective companies visiting."

In his three years with the GOED, Atkins also assisted South Dakota communities in the development of marketing strategies so that they could begin their own industrial recruitment efforts.

"Over all, I was just a resource person for them," he said.

State Fair improves

In the summer of 1998, he was appointed interim manager of the State Fair, and ended up taking over the job on a permanent basis.

The fair was suffering from declining attendance and was nearly drowning in red ink when Atkins took the job.

"There were three major things that we were able to accomplish here (at the fair)," Atkins said. "The first was we were able to change the attitude of the people who work here, and not just our full-time people, but we have hundreds of employees for fair week and a week or two around that."

Other goals that were successfully met were to make the fair a more family-friendly place by getting back to some of its traditional roots.

"And through the assistance and direction of Gov. Janklow, he provided literally thousands of dollars of funding to do major improvements to the fairgrounds," Atkins said. "It also allowed us to make it a more enjoyable place to visit by improving buildings so we could get better utilization from them. We just fixed some things that hadn't been fixed for some time."

One of the most talked about changes to the fair � the moving of its opening day to several weeks earlier in the summer � proved to be a major factor in its recent success, he said.

"I think the fair date change gave us a chance to allow more use and have more families attend the fair," Atkins said. "They'll be going into their second year of the date change this year, and with some things that happened in the Legislature this year, I'm pretty confident that things are definitely going in the right direction for the fair now."

Atkins hasn't been in Vermillion on a long-term basis since his graduation from USD in 1989.

"But I had been back a few times after I graduated, and after I was in Pierre, I had an opportunity to work on a couple different projects in Vermillion," he said. "I'm fairly familiar with that part of the state in terms of what kinds of opportunities may be available."

Atkins noted that the success the fair has experienced in the last couple years made the decision to pursue the Vermillion position easier.

"It was a lot easier to move on to another place knowing that some of the things that were started and done while I was here (at Huron) have resulted in a place that I think is going to do fairly well from here on out," he said.

'Definite pluses'

"The fact that Craig has good contacts in state government and with other economic development executives and is a USD alumnus are definite pluses," Paulson said.

Atkins was recommended for the job by the VDC Executive Director Search Committee made up of Mayor William Radigan, Chamber President Curt Schempp and VDC board members Karen Muenster, Sue French, Gene Lunn and Greg Peters.

"They all did an excellent job of ensuring that the right candidate was found," Paulson said. "The VDC greatly appreciates the cooperation of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce as assistance of Jill LeCates, Chamber executive director, in helping us during the search process."

"I was really impressed with the responsiveness and the progressive nature of the Vermillion Development Company's board," Atkins said. "If they have that kind of attitude throughout, it's going to make it a lot easier. They are good people and they really want to see something happen in Vermillion, so that was encouraging."

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