Howe: Vermillion must embrace change By: David Lias
Plain Talk Steve Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company, told the local Rotary Club Tuesday that itâ�?�?s time for local citizens to embrace change. â�?�?There are a lot of things in our community that are wonderful,â�? he said, â�?�?but there are also many things that arenâ�?�?t wonderful. We often donâ�?�?t see those things; we tend to go through life with blinders on.â�? Howe, a Vermillion native, knows from personal experience that the city offers limited career opportunities. He added that statistical data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources comparing Vermillion economic trends with both state averages and with other major communities in eastern South Dakota also paint a rather grim picture. â�?�?A lot of the negative aspects of our community have to do with attitudes and personalities,â�? Howe said. â�?�?Thatâ�?�?s my case for change.â�? He used U.S. Census Data to compare a Clay Countyâ�?�?s and Vermillionâ�?�?s economic indicators with those of Yankton, Codington, Lake and Union counties. In the last 15 years, Clay Countyâ�?�?s population has decreased by nearly 3 percent, while the state population, on an average, has grown by 12 percent. â�?�?Interestingly enough, Clay County, at the turn of the last century (1900) had 9,000 people living in it,â�? Howe said. â�?�?Its population is 13,000 now.â�? The annual household income in competing counties is approximately $60,000 to $70,000. In Clay County, that figure is approximately $40,000. According to Census statistics, Clay County residents have a median annual income of $29,000. The median annual income in competing counties is approximately $40,000. Conversely, Clay Countyâ�?�?s poverty rate â�?�? at approximately 21 percent â�?�? exceeds the the rates in competing counties. â�?�?One in five of the population in this county is below the poverty level,â�? Howe said. â�?�?The state is at 15 percent, and Brookings County is at about 10 percent. The other competing counties are just a bit higher than that.â�? Howe said many Vermillion people tell Howe that the community naturally has a higher poverty rate because of the high number of university students who live here. To determine whether students were driving Vermillionâ�?�?s poverty statistics, Howe gathered data for students under the age of 18. â�?�?Seventeen percent of kids â�?�? this isnâ�?�?t our (university) student population, this is the kids in our households â�?�? that live in poverty,â�? he said. State poverty figures for this age group, which includes young people who live on Indian reservations, is at about 18 percent. â�?�?Our poverty level for young people is closer to the levels on the reservations than it is for any town that we compete with,â�? Howe said. â�?�?To me the poverty statistics are just mind-boggling and shameful. Itâ�?�?s like nobody sees it, but something is going on in this community.â�? Vermillion boasts higher rental housing costs than competing communities, according to Howeâ�?�?s research. â�?�?We earn the least money, but we pay the highest rent,â�? he said. Economic studies also show that Vermillionâ�?�?s competing communities are able to attract more retail sales. Vermillion shoppers, on the other hand, are more likely to travel to other communities to shop. â�?�?Our competing communities are bringing in money from outside,â�? Howe said. Statistics also show that Vermillion and Clay County have slightly higher property tax rates than competing communities and counties. â�?�?You start rattling it down â�?�? lowest income, highest poverty rate, highest taxes, lowest outside income â�?�? it just doesnâ�?�?t paint a very pretty picture,â�? Howe said. Over 60 percent of the businesses in Vermillion fall within the categories of government, service and retail trade. These three areas, he said, are at the bottom of the stateâ�?�?s salary rates. â�?�?Our primary industry focus is on the lowest-paid industry sectors in the country,â�? he said. â�?�?We are lacking in wholesale trade, manufacturing, construction â�?�? the type of jobs that typically are the core backbone of an economy.â�? Itâ�?�?s time, Howe said, for Vermillion to work on obtaining an industry mix that provides jobs that are year-round in nature and provide solid income and benefits. Itâ�?�?s also time for the community to set its focus away from trivial items, and instead look at developing infrastructure that will bring about positive change. â�?�?Weâ�?�?re fighting with our university over whether it can close one block of a residential street â�?¦ but in Yankton, theyâ�?�?ve completed and filled four spec buildings,â�? Howe said. â�?�?Weâ�?�?re fighting over whether to charge $3 per month for curbside recycling, while our competitors have come together and raised millions of dollars for economic development.â�? Over a century ago, Vermillionâ�?�?s community leaders decided they needed a university. They raised the bond funding to construct the campusâ�?�? first buildings. That same progressive attitude needs to be reborn here, Howe said. â�?�?What is the right thing to do for the community? Is it to sit back and remain with the status quo?â�?Howe asked. â�?�?Or is it time to come together as a community and decide we want to change this community and move it forward like our forefathers did back in 1881?â�? Vermillion, he said, must embrace diversity in industry just as it embraces diversity in people. It also must demand vision from its leaders. Good leaders donâ�?�?t micro-manage. They instead focus on the grand scheme of things, Howe said. â�?�?We also need to remember to celebrate success,â�? he said, â�?�?and we need to support and fund growth in this community.â�?