WeLead West Liberty Begins Fourth Year10/16/2009
City, ISU continue to fund WeLead
by Lindsay Hoeppner · West Liberty Index
Formed in February 2006, WeLead was organized by the West Liberty Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa Resource Conservation & Development to bring an economic development organization to the community.
Three years later, the nonprofit organization is not only going strong, but two of the major investors — Iowa State University and the city of West Liberty — have renewed funding.
West Liberty mayor Chad Thomas thought the continued support was only natural, given the continuance of the program.
“We had some relationships with Iowa City Area Development prior to WeLead’s existence — just directly as the city and some of the developers in town,” Thomas said. “I don’t think we were fully able to utilize those relationships, because we didn’t have any one point person focused on that particular subject.”
That problem was combatted when West Liberty native Karen Lathrop was hired as the executive director of WeLead in October 2006.
Since then, the program has thrived.
“We’ve gained a good deal of advantage promoting our town and our community businesses and helping existing businesses in town stay afloat,” Thomas said. “That’s certainly been important.”
Initially, when WeLead was formed, ISU was transforming its statewide extension offices by moving away from the traditional agriculture-based focus to a more economic development-themed approach.
“They really liked our program and wanted to use it as a sort of pilot of this shift from traditional agriculture to value-added agriculture and economic development,” Thomas said. “So, they did a three-year funding arrangement, where they actually pick up quite a bit of the cost of expense and the training that Karen Lathrop has had.”
The city of West Liberty also committed to a three-year funding arrangement, contributing $52,000 annually. The city’s contribution is augmented by funds from Muscatine County, which contributes $3,300, and Liberty Communications, West Liberty State Bank, West Liberty Foods and MidWestOne Bank, which all contribute $2,500.
In turn, WeLead collects the money and contracts with ISU.
“We send them the money to cover the salary, and then they take care of all the benefits, professional development and my training, so it equates to about $14,000-$15,000 in investment, but it’s not an investment we actually get in our funding, it’s more of a matching type,” Lathrop said.
As ISU decided to continue its contribution for another three years, Thomas said the city’s renewed three-year partnership was necessary for any future successes of the program.
“The relationship has been very beneficial to West Liberty, the businesses in town and the agricultural businesses in the outlying area,” Thomas said.
What’s more, the program has helped the community gain exposure.
“One focus we talked about this year is really looking at more internal awareness within our community, but across the state, there are a lot of communities that know about WeLead because it is a unique partnership,” Lathrop said. “A town of our size having an economic developer is pretty unusual.”
Which is why Lathrop is making sure the program remains sustainable.
“We’re not looking at being too short-sided, and we have a diverse selection of stakeholders and investors in our organization,” she said. “We’re constantly learning. It’s one of those things — economic development is everywhere, but everyone defines it differently, so it’s really about understanding our community, knowing where the gaps are and what we could directly influence and define it. That’s how WeLead has evolved.”
And it appears as if that evolution will continue into WeLead’s future, as the organization continues its plans on forming a regional technology center.
Although Lathrop said WeLead is still in the early feasibility stages of working with the West Liberty School District and Iowa Workforce Development, the proposed center will educate students on career paths available to them and how their classes relate to each chosen field.
“We’ve met with the school district and identified what its training needs are and we’ve met with Muscatine Community College to see what programmatic things they can offer,” Lathrop said. “The next phase is really understanding the gaps in the industry, and what specific things we can do to address those gaps, fill them in and create a stronger workforce for our community.”
WeLead is comprised of president Jerry Melick, vice president Cindy Mays, secretary Tara Lindsay, treasurer Bill Tharp and board members Jody Dvorak, Tom Furlong, Bob Mata and Gerry Wickham.
Jerry Melick serves on the ICAD Group board.