Vermillion Now! â�?�?Can-doâ�?�? attitude leads to successful capital campaign By David Lias
Plain Talk Vermillion townsfolk gathered at the community's new city hall Tuesday evening to celebrate. In a little over six months, organizers of Vermillion Now!, a five-year economic development initiative for the city, have not only met their goal of $1.5 million in donations and pledges. They've surpassed it. In a symbolic ceremony involving officials from the Vermillion Area Chamber and Development Company (VCDC) and leaders of the fundraising campaign, an oversized check totaling over $1.6 million was revealed at Tuesday's celebration. Over 105 local investors pledged amounts ranging from a high of $450,000 pledged by the city of Vermillion in $90,000 increments over the next five years, to several one-time gifts of $500 or less. VCDC officials unveiled an Honor Roll of Investors at Tuesday's victory celebration. A press conference was held later in city hall involving Steve Howe, executive director of the VCDC, Jerad Higman and Rich Van Den Hul, co-chairmen of the Vermillion Now! campaign cabinet, and Michelle Maloney, a member of the fundraising effort's operations committee. "This is a five-year campaign," Howe said. "We hope to continue fundraising. We may not be able to do it as aggressively as we have in the past several months, but as long as this campaign is going,we are going to soliciting funds at some level." A committee made up of approximately 20 people settled on several main goals for the capital campaign, including new business recruitment and expansion, marketing, workforce development and entrepreneurial development. The capital campaign was launched in January after an analysis of the Vermillion community by the VCDC board demonstrated that the community needed funding to stimulate further economic development. The VCDC's study uncovered some disturbing trends. In comparison to a number of other communities, such as Watertown, Madison, Brookings and Yankton, the study revealed that Vermillion has much lower wages. Vermillion also has significantly higher poverty rates — somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 percent higher, according to a report Howe gave to the Vermillion City Council last April. The VCDC also determined that from a population growth standpoint, there's been slower overall growth in Vermillion during the past 15 years when compared to other major communities in South Dakota, and historically, there's been very little population growth in the community in the past century. The low wages, high poverty and slow growth are likely linked to the types of employment opportunities offered in Vermillion, Howe said in April. "We are very pleased that our program has been so well received and feel that this demonstrates to our friends throughout South Dakota that Vermillion is in the game again," Higman added. He noted that Vermillion Now! faced some significant challenges when the fundraising campaign was launched in January, ranging from a shaky national and state economy, to a widespread perception that Vermillion is not only a slow growth area, but also does not welcome growth. "When people thought about Vermillion, they very politely say, 'They have a great university, but that's about it.' We want to create a positive and realistic local attitude towards growth and give our local economic development organization the tools needed to attract new and vibrant businesses to the community," Higman said. "This program gives the community the tools to guide its own destiny by proactively seeking new industry that will be a good fit for the community." "The first thing we are going to is get our economic development committee and the advisory governance council (of Vermillion Now!) together to start laying out the priorities for the campaign," Howe said. "Some of the early opportunities that we have for the funds are putting them into co-op efforts with the state into programs that are already existing." Long terms goals include conducting a further, more in-depth analysis of the Vermillion community. "That will help us identify target industries that we want to go after, and develop a marketing campaign around that," Howe said. "We've already started working with USD in the entrepreneurial development portion of the campaign. We're in the process of interviewing for a joint faculty position between USD, the VCDC, and Small Business Development. That's a great way that we can all come together." The capital campaign was launched in a time of great economic uncertainty, filled with news of a deep national recession. "There was a lot of worry when we launched this," Higman said, "but I think the main reason we went ahead is there is really no good time to start a capital campaign, and my thought was, 'if we do it now, in the worse times possible, and we succeed, that proves a huge point to not only the people in this town, but also to the people in this region.' "I think meeting our goals speaks volumes for the people, the town, for the county, businesses, and the university," he said. "Everybody really stepped up to the plate. There are a lot of people who are very proud of Vermillion and want to see it succeed." Leadership of the Vermillion Now! campaign is made up of a diverse group of people, Van Den Hul said. "There was some real concern that, particularly given the economy, that we wouldn't be successful. However, there was a lot of confidence in the analysis that was done and this entire process was led by a strong can-do attitude. "We said even though the economy is not good, we think we can get this done, and if anything, the bad economy just gives us an exclamation point for our celebration," he said. "There's not a single successful business out there that doesn't operate on the model 'don't tell me what you can't do, let me show you what I can do.' That's what this was all about for me," Maloney said. "We needed a little self-confidence, and I think this program showed Vermillion what we can do by not focusing on anything negative, and staying positive." "The city, the county, the university, businesses have all worked as a team on this," Van Den Hul said. "I'm proud as a member of the university and working with the university foundation to be a part of this." Some people may wonder why USD and the university foundation would invest in the capital campaign, he said. "You have to take a long-term view. A stronger Vermillion, with a few more people and a more diverse economy is going to get better amenities which is going to make USD more attractive to students and give them a more valuable experience while they are in Vermillion," Van Den Hul said.