Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Brands Can Be Fun

“We needed to raise $30,000 to buy a jaws-of-life for the town and I told my brother that I’d lead the fund raising. We decided to inaugurate the University of Okoboji and use it as our theme.” Herman Ritter was talking about how the brand for the Lake Okoboji area in northern Iowa began.

The chain of three natural lakes surround the towns of Okoboji, Spirit Lake (one of my agurbs®), Milford, Orleans, Arnolds Park, West Okoboji and Wahpeton. The combined population of seven towns is under 10,000 with Spirit Lake the largest at 4,261.

Herman went on, “We wanted to be able to celebrate something memorable, and so we decided to start the university in 1878 so that we could celebrate its centennial that year at our homecoming. We billed it as University of Okoboji, 1878 to 1978, seven years of progress.”

“We are a real university. We’ve got housing, professors, students, sports and even fraternities. The only thing that we’re missing is classes, but who cares.” They’ve even started a foundation that has an endowment in the millions. You can buy University of Okoboji shirts, hats and other items all over town.

When I gave my talk, I mentioned that the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurship Centers, which are helping to put Iowa on the cutting edge of entrepreneurism, are located at five of the state’s top universities. I was shocked however that the Fighting Phantoms of the University of Okoboji had been excluded as a center until I tried to take the entrance exam. I quickly realized that Okoboji’s entrance exam was way too difficult, geared toward A-students, whereas entrepreneurs tend to be C-students.

Okoboji has demonstrated that you can have fun with a brand. It doesn’t have to be something stuffy. They’ve done a great job of promoting it out in a 300 mile radius.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Our Ducks Return

The ducklings that were born a week ago on our boat dock came back this weekend to visit. They had moved away the day after they were born but started coming back. They swam in our ponds and then several of them were swept into the lake when they waded in the stream. All eight appear to be in great shape. Pictured below is my wife feeding them from atop the shorewall.

Mother duck and her eight ducklings Posted by Picasa

Betinha feeding mother duck and eight ducklings at Lake Sara Posted by Picasa

Why Don’t We Feel Better?

“Why does 40% of the U. S. population think that we are in a recession when the economy is clicking along fine but flying low?” Economist Stephen Happel, from Arizona State University asked the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines Conference at The Lake of Ozarks. I was there, following him on the program. Happel, born and raised in Quincy, IL was a Keynesian economist when he was at the University of Missouri and Duke, but became more of a Friedman, Free-Market, economist the more he studied. He calls his adopted state of Arizona a free market mecca, “There is no place on earth that is more free market than Arizona.”

“Every reputable economist knows that the tax cuts of 2003 are one of the main drivers of our current economy. We had ten straight quarters of greater than 3% growth, which is unprecedented in modern history. It fell to 1.7% in the fourth quarter of 2005 because of Katrina, but rebounded to 5.3% in the first quarter of this year.”

Happel is a strong believer in the power of demographic trends. “The young people in their 20s and the age bracket from 45 to 55 are both huge in size and in spending patterns that will drive this economy for many years in the future.”

He broke down his analysis of demographic groups into five:

1. The Bob Hope generation, with 52 million people, was the generation that grew up in the depression. Money was their key driver.

2. The Sinatra, Elvis & James Dean generation, with only 47 million was the silo generation that grew up during the cold war. They worked hard and saved.

3. The Baby Boomers at 76 million was brought up on “Leave it to Beaver” and is very self-confident, are high achievers and love to spend.

4. Generation X with 59 million are the latch-key kids. Over ½ of them living through a divorce. “Bevis & Butthead” was their favorite show.

5. The Rainbow Generation at 74 million is almost as large as the Baby Boomers. They are the least racist group in U. S. history, have an incredible amount of self esteem, crave fame and need to be coddled. Seventy percent admire their parents, especially their mothers. They want to make money and give back to society.

The one storm cloud that Happel saw on the horizon was the rhetoric toward protectionism and the erecting of trade barriers. “The worst guy in America today is Senator Charles Schumer, with his talk of a 27% tariff on Chinese goods.”
Happel was a down-to-earth economist who was able to turn a dry subject into an interesting talk. Others on the program that I didn’t get to see because I was on my way to talk in Okoboji, IA (my topic tomorrow), were Ben Stein and Bill Kurtis.

The Federal Home Loan Bank is doing similar conferences in Sioux Falls, SD on August 8 & 9 and in Minneapolis on November 1 & 2. Click here for a copy of the program and for free registration.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Where To Live

Here are some tips on where you might want to live depending upon what you value in your hometown.

You can live in New York City where…..

1. You say “the city” and expect everyone to know you mean Manhattan

2. You can get into a four hour argument about how to get from Columbus Circle to Battery Park but can’t find Wisconsin on a map

3. You idea of “nature” is Central Park

4. You think that being able to swear at people in their own language makes you multi-lingual

5. You’ve worn out a car horn

6. You think that eye contact is an act of aggression

Or you can live in the Midwest where….

1. You’ve never met any celebrities, but the mayor knows your name

2. Your idea of a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor

3. You’ve had to switch from “heat” to A/C” on the same day

4. You end sentences with a preposition: “Where’s my coat at?”

5. When asked how your trip was to an exotic place, you say, “It was different!”

Friday, May 26, 2006

Building a Brand—Turning Adversity Around

You expect things to be a little kooky in Key West. This is after all the place that Jimmy Buffett made famous with numerous songs and where he has a bar and recording studio. The locals call themselves conchs (pronounced konks), named for the brightly colored spiral shells of the region. They are also resourceful, having beautiful sandy beaches with 100% of the sand being barged in from the Bahamas. Charles Kuralt called it the “greatest of all the end-of-the-road towns.” It is over 2,200 miles from Fort Kent, ME to Key West, FL.

As I mentioned yesterday, Key West has had their fair share of adversity over the centuries. The citizens were up in arms in 1982 when the U. S. Government decided to erect a permanent check-point on route 1, the only road out of the Keys, backing up traffic 20 miles with 1,500 cars in what was billed as “the biggest parking lot in the nation.” Two years earlier President Jimmie Carter had offered to take any Cubans seeking freedom and over 125,000 refugees, 23,000 of whom were dumped from Castro’s prisons and mental asylums, made the 90 mile trip from Havana’s Mariel Harbor to Key West. The influx into the small town, overwhelmed everything and badly damaged the important tourist industry.

Five days after the check-point was erected Key West symbolically seceded from the U. S., declared war on the U. S., surrendered immediately and applied to the United Nations for $1 billion in foreign aid. The establishment of the Conch Republic was one of the greatest publicity stunts of all time. Moral support, but no money, flowed in from all over the world.

The U. S. government quickly rescinded the idea of a permanent check-point but the brand of the Conch Republic has lived on. Their motto is, “We seceded where others failed.” The town is full of hats and shirts that advertise the Conch Republic. The airport terminal has the name over it. You can also get a Conch Republic passport or buy stamps and currency from it. It has taken on a life of its own. An annual celebration is held each year on the Conch Republic’s Independence Day, bringing in tens of thousands of tourists.

Key West is having a ball with their brand. Next week I’m going to tell you about a Midwestern town that I was in earlier this week that has done something very similar. What are you doing to build your brand?

Lunch counter that inspired "Cheeseburgers in Paradise" on Key West Posted by Picasa

Jimmie Buffett's Recording Studio in Key West Posted by Picasa

Elvis on streets of Key West Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Resilient Town

It has always amazed me, when I see how some towns never seem to give up, even in the face of huge obstacles. I was in such a town this past week when I spent 3 days in Key West, FL (population 25,478), one of my 397 agurbs®. Key West has been clobbered numerous times by hurricanes, seen the collapse of whole industries and been through many boom and bust cycles. More on how they turned adversity into a branding for their town tomorrow.

The town’s early wealth was developed by the wrecking industry which developed in Key West because of its proximity to the 164 mile long barrier reef, third largest in the world, which snagged many passing ships and their cargoes. From 1830 to 1900 the town boasted of having more millionaires per capita and being the richest town in America. When buoyed shipping channels and light houses decimated that industry, the sponge industry flourished until red tide killed it. Similarly, the cigar manufacturing industry flourished in Key West, with 166 different manufacturers until a fire destroyed it, moving the industry to Tampa.

Last year’s Hurricane Wilma was the seventh hurricane in two years to touch the island. It destroyed 70% of the cars and damaged 50% of the houses on the six square mile island (1.5 x 4 mile).

But, other than a few blue tarps still on rooftops and the lack of big trees, you would hardly know that Key West had been decimated by a category five hurricane in October of last year. Some towns get kicked hard, but they just get back up and start to rebuild. Key West is such a town.

Shipwrecks from Hurricane Wilma Posted by Picasa

Southernmost Point in Continental USA Posted by Picasa

Key West Mural Posted by Picasa

Key West B & B Posted by Picasa

Harry Truman Little White House; Key West Posted by Picasa

Duval Street in Key West Posted by Picasa

Funky Chairs in Key West Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Switchgrass’ Future

Centuries ago the prairies of the USA were covered with native grasses such as Bluestem, Buffalograss, Indiangrass and Switchgrass. With the advent of intensive agriculture virtually all of these native grasses became very scarce. They revived in the late 1980s with the introduction of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which took millions of acres of marginal farmland and converted it back into a more natural setting.

Recently switchgrass has been discussed as a potential alternative for the production of ethanol. The biomass created from the very tall grass is viewed as being more similar to the production of alcohol, made from sugarcane, which has allowed Brazil to become self sufficient in energy production.

Another experiment with switchgrass recently took place in southern Iowa with an Alliant Energy project. During the past three months 31,000 bales of switchgrass, totaling over 15,000 tons of renewable fuel was ground into fine particles and then blown into Alliant’s Ottumwa Generating Station where it was mixed with coal.

The test produced almost 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to run 1,850 average homes for a year. It also set a world record for electricity production from swithgrass.

You’re going to be hearing a lot more about switchgrass in the future. One recent study showed that SD had enough biomass potential to produce 1/3 of the energy that is produced in Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Pride Corner

Robinson’s Pride Corner is a great idea that others might want to use. They have taken a small, highly visible corner and turned it into a tribute to their veterans and others in their community.

Wouldn’t this look good in your town?

Pride Corner in Robinson, IL Posted by Picasa

Almost Didn’t Finish High School

I told the graduating class of Leadership Training in Robinson, IL that I almost didn’t finish high school because of the town.

I was a senior in high school and the PGA was holding the Robinson Open in the town. Robinson, with a population of 6,822, was the smallest town to ever hold a PGA tour event at the time. I took off from school for three days in the spring of my senior year to caddy for Ed Snead, nephew of J. C. Snead. When I returned to school on Monday morning the high school principal didn’t see any educational value in my experience and threatened to suspend my upcoming diploma.

I’m not sure that she could do that, but she sure had my attention that day. I’ve always held a soft spot in my heart for Robinson as a result of the great experience of that weekend, even if Sister Stephanie didn’t understand it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Beautiful Spring Day!

Today is a wonderful spring day. There is a cool breeze with not a cloud in the sky.

Yesterday our twin sons, Joseph and James graduated from high school and are on their way to college. It has been so much fun watching them grow up and mature into young men and I’m so proud of what they are doing.

A duck laid eggs at our boat dock and yesterday was also when they hatched. We have been watching over them, had to trap some coons that had their eyes on them and have been anxiously awaiting their birth. We’re not sure how many ducklings we’ll have, but I’ll put some pictures on as I capture them swimming around.

Last week I saw some new goslings on the lake and happened upon a possum with her young on her back, when I was out running.

Spring is one of my favorite times of the year. It is a time of renewal and growth.

Joseph, My Mother & James at Graduation Posted by Picasa

Duck & New Ducklings Posted by Picasa

Relocating Artists

Steve & Carol McGahey of Palestine, IL (population 1,366) are two of the leaders who are remaking their historic community into an artists’ colony. I was in nearby Robinson, one of my agurbs®, addressing their graduating class of leadership training and toured Palestine prior to the talk.

Carol had written to me earlier this year for a blog that I did on January 3rd, “Last month we had a family move from Chicago to start a small studio. We also have purchased a building for an Artist Co-op.” On the tour Steve told me, “We’ve already got five artists here and two galleries. One of our artists has his work in the Smithsonian Museum.”

They’ve set up a special financing program for new artists, have wonderfully old buildings in their downtown and are very proud of their town. If you get a chance be sure to visit them when you are in SE IL.

Their website is

Downtown Palestine, IL Posted by Picasa

Artist Relocation Banner in Palestine, IL Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 20, 2006

High-Tech Boomtown

Potato country becoming high-tech country? Quincy, WA (population 5,044), 160 miles east of Seattle and 12 miles north of George, WA (get it?) is going through a boom as a server center. The relative proximity to Seattle, low-cost real estate, stable weather and geographic activity make it a desired spot for data centers.

Microsoft has purchased 74 acres of land for six buildings, totaling 1.4 million sf. Yahoo has an agreement on 50 acres for a similar facility after doing a data center in nearby Wenatchee. Google bought 34 acres with an option on 80 more in The Dalles, OR.

All of these facilities have several similarities. They are all rural, are bricks and mortar in nature and are close to low cost hydro-electric power. It is a major change for the software industry, which has been based upon an intellectual property business model. Today’s model is changing to an older, industrial model where physical assets are gaining in importance.

This change is being led by the growth of online applications, communications and entertainment. If most of the six billion people on the planet are online most of the time, the growth of these data centers will be exponential.

The projects promise to transform the rural towns in which they are located, adding high tech jobs and potentially doubling the tax base for the towns. The longer term benefit could be the suppliers that locate in Quincy, Wenatchee and The Dalles and the entrepreneurial companies that are offshoots of this new cluster in high tech.

Do you have the potential to become the site for one of these high tech, capital intensive data centers?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Where Are You Going to Retire?

A survey in today’s USAToday shows that 60% of boomers want to retire in a rural or small town, far outdistancing the second choice of 49% who prefer an age-restricted community. Close to family was third and an urban or city environment was fourth at only 12%.

Are you ready to capture the boomers who are looking for that special place in which to retire?

Entrepreneurial Fairfield

“The town was devastated when Parson’s College closed its doors in 1973. There had been 4,500 students and it was the largest employer in town by far.” Burt Chojnowski of Brain Belt Consulting and president of the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association was describing the transition of Fairfield, IA (population 9,509) into one of the most entrepreneurial towns I’ve visited. I was in Fairfield for Chris Gibbons’ National Economic Gardening Gathering. It was the first time that I’d been back since visiting it several times in the late 80s. The town has gone through quite a transformation since then.

Burt went on, “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi bought the campus for $1.2 million in 1974 and started Maharishi University. He is focused upon the development of consciousness. He wanted to develop a utopian campus and community focused upon world peace.”

The University has acted as a magnet to bring in very creative people from all over the world. Many of them have settled in rural Fairfield, attracted by its more tranquil setting, low costs and creative energy.

Burt’s tour of the community pointed out numerous examples of individuals who have developed very entrepreneurial business in the town, “15% of all of the infomercials are produced here. We’ve got three newspapers.”

We drove by Chappell Studios, a school and marathon photographer, which is located in the largest commercial log cabin building in the world. Books Are Fun, a book-fair retailer, was started by Earl Kaplan in Fairfield, who sold it to Readers Digest for almost $400 million a couple of years ago. Bovard Studio Inc. is one of the largest producers of commercial stained glass windows in the world. Collectively those three companies employ over 1,000 in the town.

“We are building a $7 million civic center that will include a 525 seat auditorium to be able to do theater in the round. We’ve got over $1.5 million in renovations going on in the downtown right now as a result of a special $3 million revolving loan pool that the four local banks put together. We’ve got both a great public and private school here in town. The private school has about 400 students, costs around $12,000/year to attend and constantly wins several state championships each year.

The downtown was full with loads of entrepreneurial shops, coffee shops and restaurants. It was difficult to find a parking spot in the several times that I drove to the downtown.

Burt and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs just published a study on Fairfield. Click here to read their great story.

Downtown Fairfield, IA Posted by Picasa

Gallery in downtown Fairfield, IA Posted by Picasa

State Championship Board at Fairfield's private school Posted by Picasa

Books Are Fun HQ in Fairfield, IA Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Economic Gardening

“In 1989, we took the funds that we had been spending on recruiting in new businesses and decided to spend them on local businesses, in helping them to grow.” Chris Gibbons of Littleton, CO (population 40,340) was describing the start of economic gardening. Gibbons was leading a discussion of the concept at the National Economic Gardening and Rural Entrepreneurial Gathering in Fairfield, IA last week.

Gibbons went on, “We’ve had nine city councils since then and every one of them has approved the concept. We have a lot of small business advocates in town who have benefited from the program. Today we’ve got a $500,000 a year budget to work with these companies and individuals. About 15% of that is spent on data bases and data services.”

Littleton’s program is focused upon assisting these entrepreneurs in a number of ways. One of their main focuses is upon assisting in market research and figuring out where products can be sold. “One of the best opportunities today is in the area of web optimization, helping our companies to increase their online rankings. It is field leveling technology that can really help smaller companies.”

The number of businesses in Littleton has almost doubled since it was implemented. Approximately 400 companies and individuals make contact with them annually from the community, with 150 of those requiring extensive work. Helping these small businesses is a growing trend, that Littleton is leading the way on.

Today over 30 communities have embraced the concept, having developed their own economic gardening models. Gibbons runs an excellent “Econ-dev” internet mail-list about the subject. To sign up, send him an email at or check out their website.

Eric Ervin, Chris Gibbons, Jo Anne Ricca & Christine Hamilton-Pennell of the Economic Gardening Team in Littleton, CO
 Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sheboygan Rocks!

When people are looking at getting out of the rat race of the big cities, what are they going to be looking for? That has been a quest of mine as I’ve traveled around the country, visiting towns and doing interviews.

I’m become more convinced that those towns that will survive and thrive are the ones that have special quality of life attributes, a unique feel about them, outstanding recreational assets and low cost of living.

I found all of those attributes in Sheboygan. The creative people who helped to develop the community have left behind an equally creative, dedicated and passionate citizenry. Sitting on the banks of Lake Michigan is a huge attribute. Having the Kohler hospitality and golf assets are very strong plus. The new Blue Harbor Resort, a Great Wolf Project, with 184 rooms, 64 condos, conference center and indoor water park is another huge advantage. The John Michael Kohler Art Center, the Stefanie Weill Theater, and Above and Beyond Children’s Museum also add much to the town.

Housing is still moderately attractive. We passed one house a half block from Lake Michigan with a view of the lake, priced at $60,000.

The downtown is showing signs of life after a consultant in the 1970s convinced them to close off the downtown streets, making it a pedestrian friendly shopping experience. The consultants from Georgia were convinced that the days of cars in our downtowns were over. They didn’t understand the ferocity of Wisconsin winters, were wrong and the downtown suffered dramatically.

Sheboygan is like a lot of towns. There are too many factions going off in different directions that need to develop a common shared vision of what they want their town to look like in the future. They’ve got everything to work with and after talking with them, I’m convinced that they are onto some of the best days of their lives.

Marina in Sheboygan, WI Posted by Picasa

Stefanie H. Weill Theater in Sheboygan, WI Posted by Picasa

My tour guides Mike Leibham & Greg Weggerman in front of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Posted by Picasa