Businesses and individuals who have put a stake in the community's future by making pledges to the Vermillion NOW! campaign received an opportunity last Thursday to learn just how their donations are being spent so far.
The Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCDC) hosted an informal investor update meeting Sept. 23 in the upper level of RED Steakhouse.
At times, there was standing room only as local citizens munched on appetizers and toured four stations to learn about the progress being made in four key goals identified when the Vermillion NOW! fundraising campaign began last year.
In July of 2009, organizers of Vermillion NOW! not only met their goal of $1.5 million in donations and pledges, but surpassed it. 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.
"We not only want to inform the general public, but also the investors, and let them know what's going on, and to let them know that things are happening," said Jerad Higman, owner of Masaba Manufacturing, who played a key role in last year's capital campaign and today serves on Vermillion NOW!'s advisory governance council.
"We've got a great branding campaign, we've gotten some great literature put together, and above and beyond that, we've got a plan," he said. "Hopefully a lot of this stuff will come to fruition sooner and not later, and people will see some big changes in Vermillion."
A committee made up of approximately 20 people settled on several main goals at the time of the launch of the capital campaign in January 2009, including new business recruitment and expansion, marketing, workforce development and entrepreneurial development.
Those topics, along with land and building availability and finance were discussed at stations that investors could tour during Thursday's informal meeting.
The capital campaign was launched in January 2009 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 Steve Howe, executive director of the VCDC, gave to the Vermillion City Council in April 2009. Howe also serves as campaign director of Vermillion NOW!
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 last year.
Higman cites a major push in the marketing of the city – thanks in part to acquiring the services of Lawrence & Schiller of Sioux Falls – as a major step forward.
"Once we've got that behind us, now we can actively go out and proactively recruit companies and have something to show them," he said. "We've got a plan, we've got some great properties available and we've got some great programs available to show them.
"It's a world economy that we're now in, and we're not only competing with the world, but with other states," Higman said. "You have to be creative, you have to have great people, and I think we've got both. And we've got a great town."
Vermillion, home of a great city organization and the University of South Dakota, is unique, he said. "There's just a great populace around here that will allow businesses to not only turn the corner but prosper."
The strategic plan of the VCDC and Vermillion NOW! include
• Balanced industry mix.
• Expansion of the tax base.
• Job retention.
• Job creation.
Three major objectives to achieve those goals are new business recruitment, business retention and expansion, and creating a culture of entrepreneurship. Strategies built into the strategic plan to achieve the goals and objectives include
• Ready land and buildings.
• Workforce development.
• Retention activities.
• Support of entrepreneurship.
"The number of people here and the questions that were being asked are just terrific," Howe said near the conclusion of Thursday's event. "People really wanted to understand what is going on with Vermillion NOW!, and with this format, people were able to come up and ask questions rather than just be told information. It really worked out well."
Howe said the people at Thursday's meeting were genuinely interested in what Vermillion NOW's governing council has accomplished in the last year, and seem to be happy with the progress that's been made so far."
The evening included hard data that shows gave everyone an update how their pledges have been spent and invested in the last year.
As of Aug. 31, Vermillion NOW! has received $158,000 in total cash pledges after campaign expenses. There is $130,823 in Vermillion NOW! and Missouri Valley Growth accounts.
Expenses incurred in the last year include $9,883 for ready land and buildings; $1,500 for support of entrepreneurship; and $16,009 for marketing and recruitment. So far, no expenditures have been made for incentives, workforce development or retention activities.
"This is the information that people want to know. They want to know how their money is being spent," Howe said. "We were able to provide that; we are an open book organization. Ask whatever question you want, and we're going to give you the answer.
"That kind of openness and accountability is really important in building trust and acceptance for our programs," he said.
Higman knows from personal experience that a program like Vermillion NOW will make a big difference in the community. Economic development assistance from the state and the city allowed Higman to locate Masaba Manufacturing to Vermillion, and the firm has prospered since.
"Hopefully, we can emulate that, get some more businesses located here, and increase the wealth in Vermillion," he said.