Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Surprise Valley Cares

I didn’t find out for sure, but can only guess that Surprise Valley was named by an earlier settler on the Oregon Trail who came upon this wonderful high altitude (4,000 ft) valley on their trek to the west coast. The valley hugs the Nevada border and stretches for 60 miles up to Oregon. About 1,600 people live in the valley, most dependent upon agriculture. The high altitude hay from Modoc County is prized by horse breeders in southern CA, Japan and other locations.

The valley’s only hospital closed in 1982 but the local citizens got together, voted to levy a $225/dwelling unit tax upon themselves and re-opened it in 1986. The local k-12 school has just over 100 students but when the school held their 100th anniversary reunion in 2007, over 1,000 alumni came back home to help celebrate. There is obviously a great deal of pride in a place like Surprise Valley and Cedarville.
A local craftsman, Louie Vermillion, has taken it upon himself to save and preserve some of the old ranching structures, moving them to the local fairgrounds with the help of the local Rotary Club. At 78 years of age, Louie is also restoring some of the old covered wagons that stopped in Cedarville on their trek to Oregon.

The local farmers have a very old but practical way of determining whether to cut their hayfields, “If you can’t see Mt. Shasta, don’t cut your hay today.” Mt. Shasta, California’s highest peak at 14,179 feet is 86 miles as the crow flies (but a 4 hour drive) from Alturas, but looks like it is just next door.

Laura Williams told me that the National Forest in Modoc County is visited by the second lowest number of Americans. It is pristine and I hope to return with my wife. Tomorrow, where I plan to stay.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Greensburg, KS - One Year Later

May 4, 2008 will mark the one year anniversary of the massive F-5 tornado that set down in the town of Greensburg, KS, virtually wiping it off the map.

I have been to Greensburg a number of times since that fateful day in 2007. After each visit, I come away amazed at the progress that has been made, and the positive outlook that the residents have in bringing their community back, better than before.

CBS’ The Early Show is doing a weeklong series this week called Tragedy to Triumph: Greensburg Rising. Visit

Greensburg residents are celebrating their progress with groundbreaking ceremonies for a new church, a business complex, and a ribbon-cutting for the water tower and arts center. The festivities will include a visit from President Bush, who’ll be the commencement speaker at Greensburg High School’s May 4th graduation ceremony.

I am looking forward to my next trip to Greensburg!


Gold!!! That was the cry that started a flood of adventurers to Weaverville and Trinity County in 1848. In short order Weaverville (named by the drawing of straws for one of the earlier settlers) grew into a town of over 2,000 including a sizeable Chinatown. Today there are 3,554 people who make their home in Weaverville but only 14,177 in the entire county which covers 3,178 square miles.

In his book “Lost Horizons”, James Hilton likened Weaverville’s quaint downtown to Shangri-La, “that strange and wonderful somewhere which is not a place but a state of mind.” And, with a setting in the Trinity Alps, surrounded by majestic forests and numerous mountain lakes, it is easy to understand why Hilton was enamored with the town.

My tour guides, Debbie DeCoito and Cyndy Montoya, both of SMART, told me of the locals who still prospect for gold in the hills and creeks of the county. Cyndy told me, “I know of one woman who put three kids through college and is now doing the same with her grandchildren from prospecting. We’ve got a regular trade in gold flakes and I know of at least five in Hayfork who do it on a regular basis.”

The Trinity Players is a local performing arts group that has completely redone an old warehouse, converting it into a theater for local performances and an occasional visiting artist. Plans are to add a coffee house in the building, helping to create that certain sense of place and a gathering spot in rural CA.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Best Companies to Work For

I was in Redding, CA (population 80,865) for their second annual Best Places to Work Awards Breakfast put on by the SMART Business Resource Center, the job training/placement organization in Shasta County. This award has obviously awakened a great deal of interest in the community as they had 537 nominations for 65 companies with many companies having multiple employees submitting applications. Based upon the turnout of almost 500 people, you could tell that this Best Companies to Work For is a great idea and one that I hope other towns will copy.

From a TV program, I learned that Redding is the second sunniest city in the USA with 88% of the days having sunshine. I wish that I knew which was the sunniest.

Anna Bengtsson, head of SMART and my tour guide, showed me some very interesting sites. The most outstanding was the Sundial Bridge which was built by the McConnell Foundation, a community foundation set up by a ranching couple. The walking bridge spans the Sacramento River and ties the many activities (museum, arboretum, etc.) of the Turtle Bay Exploration Center together along with tying into the many trails along the river.

The McConnell Foundation was set up by Carl and Leah McConnell who had a great love for their hometown. The Foundation has grown to over $400 million in assets and has another wonderful park (Lema Ranch) that they have open to the public. The McConnell Foundation is an example of what can happen when permanent funds are set up for community betterment.

A place that was hopping with activity was the Big League Dreams Sport Park which featured replica fields of Fenway with a 30’ Green Monster wall; Yankee Stadium with the white arches; and Wrigley Field with its ivy covered brick wall.

When I asked Anna about the impact of the downturn in the economy in CA, she told me, “We’ve got about 1,000 job seekers which is about twice what it was at the peak and have 300 to 500 companies that are constantly looking for workers. We recently had a job fair with 21 companies and had 736 people who went through in a four hour period.”

Friday, April 25, 2008

First Tractor Pulls

I learned from Billy Joe Miles that he also was one of the first people to promote tractor pulls, which have grown into major productions.

“I was head of the Young Farm Bureau Club and we decided to do a tractor pull to raise some money, which was something that no one else had ever done. There was a local guy who was home from Louisville for vacation who told us that the new machinery show in Louisville was struggling to get people to spend more than one day. He called us up and asked if we could come over and do a tractor pull inside of Freedom Hall. Four of us went over and looked at the building but we were concerned about all of the smoke from the tractors, but they told us that they’d had 20,000 people in there when virtually everyone of them was smoking and it didn’t seem to cause any problems.”

“We still weren’t sure and really got cold feet when they wanted us to promote the whole thing, renting us the building for $20,000. My friend, Donny Biddle, asked me: What if it snows that day and nobody comes? I was only 26 and $20,000 was an awful lot of money back then. I built my first house ten years later for $22,000. We decided to let them have all of the revenue and we’d put the show on for 10% of the gate. It was the worst decision I ever made because that show is now grossing $2.5 million and the group that we set up to promote it still gets 10%.”

“The tractor pull started out going to 2 nights, then 3, and 4 and finally to 4 nights plus a Saturday afternoon show. It has gotten huge!”

From that success Billy Joe’s group expanded into trade shows and arena management. They grew the business to over 100 events per year with 3 TV shows and eventually sold it to Paramount Movies.

Billy Joe finished off with a funny story of having some Russian visitors in when he introduced the first monster truck, “None of these Russians could afford to have a car. Only one in the entire group of about 50 owned a car. They were over here and we took them to one of our shows. We drove 20 cars that looked awfully good, if you had never owned a car in your life, and lined them up. They went crazy when we drove the monster truck over the top of them.”

Billy Joe is one of those entrepreneurs that can help transform a town. He has not only had that kind of impact in his hometown of Owensboro but in all of NW KY.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Downturn??? Recession???

I’ve been sitting in the Redding, CA airport all morning having seen 2 of 3 planes grounded because of mechanical problems. The third one went out completely full. I wasn’t on it. I’m now waiting for one at 2:22 pm that will take me to SF, then another to Denver and finally my last leg to St. Louis. Hopefully, I’ll get home by early tomorrow morning, but if I miss one of the tight connections, home by Friday afternoon. Such is the life of a road warrior.

In catching up on emails at the airport (thank goodness for mobile air card broadband), I was struck by the number of emails that I’ve gotten from Team Agracel on projects they are working on. We’ve got expansions being talked about or in the works for food manufacturers (3); auto parts (2); fulfillment; doors; furniture; and several others.

In my 20+ years in the business, I can’t remember when I’ve seen as many companies looking at adding onto their existing facilities. You would think that with all of the negative talk in the media that they’d be contracting rather than expanding. It’s probably a good thing that they are watching their order books and backlogs rather than the talking heads on TV.

I’m becoming more convinced with each passing day that this downturn (I refuse to use the R-word yet!) will be shallow and swift. Every indication from our business is that manufacturers are bumping up against capacity constraints because of demand for their products. The problems on Wall Street aren’t having much of an impact on Main Street.

Transforming Western KY Agriculture

Rick Siemer who grew up two blocks from me has grown into a good friend and confidant, so I paid attention when he wrote to me, “One of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs I have ever met is Billy Joe Miles, whose company Miles Enterprises (ME) is located in Owensboro, KY. I consider Billy Joe personally responsible for the development of a successful wheat-growing culture in western Kentucky beginning in the late 1980s, when he (literally) imported intensive wheat cultivation techniques from England. We have partnered with ME our entire time in Kentucky to source wheat and develop relationships. Without ME’s initiative, we probably couldn’t have justified a mill, and farmers down there would be much less successful.”

With those words, I knew that I had to get to Owensboro to meet Billy Joe, so after my talk to the Kentucky Association for Economic Development in Henderson I headed east to meet him.

When I asked him why he got involved in transforming KY ag, he replied, “I did it to keep from going broke. We were only averaging 33 bushel/acre and wheat was selling for $2/bushel. I knew that we had to do something to change that because being able to double-crop wheat and soybeans held so much potential but without even a little profit in the wheat crop, we were sunk.”

His first thought was to go to the University of Kentucky, which told him that he was wasting his time. Kentucky didn’t have the right climate to properly grow wheat, according to the extension service of the University. He next turned to ICI Chemicals, an English company that had several no-till chemicals, which asked him to travel to Great Britain in the mid 80s to take part in an ag think tank which brought together two researchers/marketers from each country in the world.

“I agreed to go if they would get me an appointment with the best agronomist in the world and I met Derrick Hall who showed me some printouts of how he was growing 100+ bushels of wheat in Russia and other places. I hired him as a consultant and had him hire an agronomist who knew how to plant wheat. We then took 20 of our best customers along with 20 journalists and went back to Great Britain. We made a big deal about it which made the university mad, exactly what we wanted because they came out and said that they were going to do research to prove that what we were trying was impossible. We got them engaged which was a big help because prior to that they were the number one enemy of making wheat into a profitable crop.”

It didn’t take long for the results of that effort to have an impact, or as Billy Joe told me, “By the third year we had doubled the wheat yield in the entire state. Now we’ve got farmers growing over 100 bushels/acre virtually every year and with the prices like they are now of $5 to $10/bushel we’ll be up to over 150 bushels/acre quickly.”

Billy Joe who started ME in the car port of his house along with his Dad, who is still his partner at age 87, has now expanded to over 20 plants scattered in KY, TN, IN and IL. His daughter has taken over running the company, his two sons both farm on their own and his 25 year old grandson heads up Billy Joe’s farming operation. Billy Joe continues to travel the world looking for new ideas and recently started a farming operation in Santa Cruz de la Serra, Bolivia. He shut down farming operations that he used to have in Russia and Romania because of the work ethic of the locals which he attributed to the culture of the old Soviet Union, “All they ever had was what they could steal. No one looked upon that as being wrong because of what they saw going on in their country.”

I’m glad that Rick Siemer suggested that I go meet Billy Joe Miles. It was a great visit for me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Success After Failure

In 1810, John James Audubon moved his family down the Ohio River to Henderson, KY (population 27,373) where his fortunes quickly rose, making him the third-richest person in the town. However, a doomed venture into a steam powered flourmill bankrupted him 1819. It was only after that failure that Audubon decided to put his energies into painting birds. When he couldn’t find any U. S. publisher who was interested, he travelled to Europe where his Birds of America was published and found great success. Perhaps we can be grateful that there is no longer an Audubon Flour but there is an Audubon Society.

I was in Henderson to give a talk to the Kentucky Association for Economic Development, the statewide ED organization that just celebrated its fortieth anniversary. It was in Henderson that I felt the first major earthquake, if you can consider a 5.2 to be major, in forty years. Henderson was my second of five talks in a row with the rest in CA. When the earthquake hit at 4:37 am I sat straight up in bed and the first thought was that somehow I’d missed KY.

In reading a bit of the history of John James Audubon it was interesting to read about his experience in the 1811 earthquakes that transformed the Midwest. These earthquakes, which achieved high 7s or low 8 readings on the Richter Scale, caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for two days and literally moved river channels. Audubon was galloping on his horse when the horse came to a sudden stop, sat down and braced itself for what Audubon had not yet felt. It must have been a very frightening experience in those days.

The impact of Audubon is everywhere in Henderson. There is a 700 acre state park on the outskirts of town, named in his honor; a series of nine sculptures of Audubon’s work graces the downtown streets with his osprey sitting on the site of his defunct mill; and the John James Audubon Birding Trail, a series of four trails that showcase the almost 100 birds that are found in northwest KY.

Henderson is doing a wonderful job of leveraging one of its failed but famous former residents.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Missed Investment Opportunity

“We wanted to give this signed offering memorandum to you, as a remembrance of what you missed,” Clarence Schutte told me as he and Randall Matheny gave me a 2002 offering for 15 million shares of stock in Lincolnland Agri-Energy, a 40 million gallon ethanol plant that was started that year in Palestine, IL. More later in the blog on what my non-investment cost me!
I was there for a tour of the plant and town and to do a talk sponsored by the Palestine Public Library. Sue Lockhart, head librarian, has developed a program called “Looking Within”, to encourage the community to look within themselves to build upon the skills and talents of those within the community to help encourage more economic growth in the town. Part of the program is aimed at former residents who are starting to move back home to retire close to their roots.

I took a tour of Lincolnland Agri-Energy with board member Robin Guyer, who also runs Bunker Hill Supply, a fertilizer, chemical and seed retailer in the area. He talked about getting the plant started, “We started up the plant in 2004 with 453 investors. It was a tough sell at the time but we had one local person who stepped forward and put us over the top. We made a 100+% return on investment in the first 18 months, but are now down to about a 15 to 20% return which still isn’t bad but doesn’t look as good when you compare it to that first year and a half. We used those early returns to pay off all of our debts and returned the entire investment to those 453 investors.”

Robin went on, “What makes me proudest is how the entire community worked together to make this project happen. Even those who didn’t invest in it have been supportive and our builder told us that it was the easiest plant to get started that they’ve been involved with.”
Lincolnland has continued to plow money back into the plant, growing from an initial storage capacity of 400,000 bushels to 2.8 million bushels. Consuming 50,000 bushel/day means that they can now store 58 days
of their needs compared to only 8 days when they started. They’ve also been able to increase production from 40 million gallons rated capacity to over 50 million gallons.

Robin explained the current economics of ethanol to me, “$6 (per bushel) corn isn’t causing us any problems. At 40% of that, or $2.40/gallon for ethanol, we are able to make about 15 to 30 cents per gallon.”

From my untrained eye, it looked like the plant is selling everything they are producing. There were tanker trucks lined up waiting for the next batch of ethanol to be sent to the storage tanks which were dry and the DDG pile (the feed by-product) was tiny. The plant is going to be one of the first in the country to begin separating out corn oil, which will be used for biodiesel. The plant is also going to begin using 10% of its energy needs from local methane production being drilled with horizontal drilling technology.

The plant has had a very positive economic impact upon the local and regional economy. Thirty seven high paid people work at the plant, local farmers are selling their corn at a premium and local gas producers are going to begin to sell what used to be a by-product. How did I ever miss this investment? Don’t you want to kick yourself sometimes?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Preservation in Illinois' Oldest Town

Palestine, IL (population 1,366) sits along the Wabash River, a river that was critical to the early development of the state. The town was incorporated in 1811, making it the oldest continuously incorporated town in the entire state. Fort Lamotte, on the outskirts of town, served as the site of The Battle of Africa Point, in the War of 1812, one of the few battles to take place in the Illinois Territory.

Palestine has a wonderful history and is fortunate to have a small group of committed citizens who are volunteering to help preserve it.

Steve McGahey, my tour guide prior to my talk in Palestine told me, “The Palestine Preservation Projects Society (PPPS) got started about 20 years ago in preserving our history. They tried to buy an old church but it collapsed before they could get that accomplished. Then they tried to buy an old schoolhouse that was built by Governor French, one of the first governors of Illinois who lived two miles south of town. But it burned down before that deal could get done.”

Most groups would have thrown their hands up by now, thinking that this just isn’t meant to be. But PPPS was not led by such people. They pushed on.

Steve explained to me, “They bought the old Fife Opera House which was built in 1899 and featured operas here until 1912. The opera house was on the second floor and the first floor was a series of retail businesses like a fertilizer retailer, a hardware store, funeral home, furniture store and carpet retailer. When they lit the lights in the building for the first time, the local power plant shut down because it was more load than it could take.”

The scenery from the early 1900s is still well preserved and PPPS hopes to have the opera house back in operation by the 200th year centennial of the town in 2011. The first floor serves as a wonderful community center.

PPPS has also helped to restore and maintain the Judge John Harper House, dating from 1830, which is the oldest remaining house in Palestine.

Greg Parrott and a group of 15 are rebuilding old Fort Lamotte, which they hope to use as a tourist draw. One of their goals is to rent out the fort for groups that want to spend the night sleeping in a recreated old fort. Parrott told me, “Joseph Lamotte was a French trader who first settled here in the mid 1700s. We’ve got a group that is doing archeological digs and think that they have found his old trading post.”

His group has created an 1812 shooting range for muskets but his real goal is to “build a cannon range. There are still some of the old cannons around and they are a real crowd pleaser.”
PPPS has restored one of the old downtown buildings into an artist gallery. The local school is redoing the 3 apartments above it into wonderful apartments and the town has developed their own artist relocation program to add to the dozen plus artists who make Palestine home.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Recession?

From the level of activity we are seeing at Agracel with companies expanding production and looking at ways to increase their capacity, I continue to think that the so-called recession is centered more on Wall Street than on Main Street. This graphic of industrial production shows it best. As you can see industrial production in the USA continues to hold up very well when compared to other periods of recession.

Back Home

Well we made it to Golconda and finished the race in under 11 hours, got our t-shirts, walked a block to the Ohio River for a picture and had some jambalya on the square in town.

Right next to the river was this fixer-up house. My wife has been talking for sometime about going further south and living on the water. The only thing seperating this house from the Ohio River is a forty foot levee which takes a bit away from the view. Not sure that this is exactly what she had in mind.

I finally arrived home after 11 pm, slowed down a bit by a state trooper who pulled me over for speeding just 2 miles from home. Even though he was impressed that I'd been part of a 80 mile run from the Mississippi River to the Ohio, he was sufficiently impressed to not give me a $95 ticket.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

We are on the downhill side of the hills of the Shawnee National Forest and should hit the finish line about 7:15. We've only got two legs yet to run and then we'll be in Golconda (population 726), on the banks of the Ohio River.

I've been very impressed with how they organized this River to River Run. They have 240 teams with 8 runners each, in addition to family and friends who come to watch the race. That is a lot of motel rooms, gas, snacks and meals for a very rural region.

Our team is talking of doing the Market to Market, an 86 mile race in NE. Who knows, some of us might make it out there.

A regional initiative like these road races can help to tie a region together and provide an economic boost.

I'm Done!

Well I was able to finish my last leg in a blinding 11 minutes/mile which didn't greatly endear me to the rest of the team. They were hoping to get to Galconda by 7 pm but my slow speed just made that a bigger hurdle.

Michael and Davis: Your Mom and Dad said to let you know that they were doing fine and that they are having a great time in Illinois. Take care of things in Georgia until they get back home.

Almost Halfway

We have now passed the halfway mark and I've just finished the first of my two legs. The hills seemed much steeper on the ground that they did in the van. We are averaging just over 8 minutes/mile as a team, although I brought the average up. We hope to finish by about 7 pm.

Cobden Appleknockers

We've now gone 12 miles, averaging about 8 minutes/mile. Fortunately, we'll have a decent average built up by the time that I run last.

One of the stops was in Cobden, IL which brought back memories from when I was 12. In 1964 the Cobden Appleknockers, a high school of only 134 students, went into the title game of the Illinois High School Basketball Game in the days of one-class basketball. Cobden is a town of only 1,100 and basketball was the main sport.

It was like the movie Hoosiers, with the only difference being that the Appleknockers got beat in the title game by Pekin (can you believe that their nickname back then was the Chinks?) 50-45. In those days the semi-final game was played in the morning and the finals in the evening. Cobden played the number one ranked team, Decatur, beating them by six points through an all out full court press from the opening tip. Pekin won their semi-final game by over 20 with the starters sitting on the bench after 2 minutes into the second half. Cobden just ran out of gas.

For a twelve year old it was exciting to watch on TV. For the locals I talked to in Cobden a few minutes ago, it was like it happened yesterday.

Back to the race....we've got some incredible runners on our team. From Georgia we have my sister Mary and her husband Jeff and their friends Deanna and Mark. My brother Bob, who organized our team, drives and keeps us laughing is in remarkable shape. Cousin Dick practices running with 2 pound weights in his hands and Holly is a nephew's girlfriend and a freshman at Indiana. And, every team has to have an anchor to hold them back...which would be me.

There are some very colorful teams in the race as you will hopefully get from the pictures.

This Seemed Like a Good Idea Last Fall

I'm sitting at the start line for the River to River Run in Southern IL, an 80 mile run from the Mississippi River thru the Shawnee National Forest to the Ohio River. I'm the anchor (as in the slowest runner) on an eight person team named "This Seemed Like a Good Idea Last Fall". We take off at 8:30 am and hope to be done by the 8 pm closing of the finish line.

I'll be updating during the race if I can find a signal in the Shawnee National Forest.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Go-To Guy

“Every town has to have a go-to guy, somebody who can make things happen when they believe in it,” Duane Bullard was telling me as we toured Ripley, MS. He went on, “In our town that person is Bobby Martin who runs The People’s Bank here in town.”

I had heard a great deal about Mr. Martin from Todd Thoman and Mike Mumm from our office who have each made several trips to Ripley as we were finalizing the purchase of the BenchCraft buildings. They’d obviously heard even more about him, because they each referred to him as The Legendary Bobby Martin.

Duane told me numerous stories of projects that happened in Ripley because of the community focus of a person like Bobby Martin. One of the best was, “We had an opportunity to get some state and federal funding to be able to build our math and science facility at the high school. But, they told us that we had seven days to raise a matching $500,000. Bobby agreed to loan $1,000 at zero interest to anyone who would make a pledge of $1,000. We got 142 people to sign up for that and then the bank matched their $1,000 which put us at almost $300,000. We ended up raising the money in only five days but it wouldn’t have happened without Bobby’s efforts. Today we’ve got a wonderful math and science facility because of those efforts.”

I was thrilled to meet the legendary Bobby Martin in my tour of the town. You can’t have a great town without one or two legendary citizens.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What do Visitors Have to Say?

“It started on July 4th, 1893 and has been going on every since. It is the largest flea market in MS and the oldest continuously operated one in the entire country,” Duane Bullard, head of the Tippah County Community Foundation and my tour guide was explaining to me about First Monday. The event is actually held on the Saturday and Sunday before the first Monday of each month, bringing in 30,000 to 50,000 visitors each month.

The Market started in downtown Ripley but moved to its site on the southern border of the town in the 1970s. With 1,100 spaces on the fifty acres of the park, the monthly event brings in exhibitors from over half of the states in the USA.

Duane is in charge of security for the events, billing himself as Fife Security, “I’ve got a gun but only one bullet just like Barney.”

Actually, his strategy makes a great deal of sense as head of economic development. He told me, “It allows me to hear what people have to say about our community. It gives me great insight on what we need to work on.”

What a great way to stay on top of perceptions of your community.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coming Back Home to Invest

Joel and Donna Bennett live in Las Vegas where Joel sells Caterpillar equipment. They return often to Ripley, MS and on one of their visits Joel couldn’t sleep so he drove around the town. When he stopped in front of the old Ripley Feed and Seed Store, it brought back many memories, “I remember coming into this building as a young boy and looking up into the circle in the ceiling and up into the second floor where they stored all of the seed.”

Joel & Donna bought the building, hoping to renovate the 1903 building into a place for Joel’s mother, Mona Griffin, to live in. Over the 13 months of construction the project moved from a single residence into a wonderfully quaint inn on the square. And, that is the name of their creation The Inn on the Square.

We stayed there prior to the ribbon cutting and were completely blown away by the creativity and detail that went on in the renovation. This was not just an investment in their hometown, it was a labor of love to take an old dilapidated building and turn it into a crown jewel for the town.

The interior doors used to grace the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis where the Mallard ducks make a daily trek to and from their penthouse housing. The doorknobs came from Rod Stewart’s home after a renovation.

If your travels every take you to northern MS, be sure to stay at the Inn on the Square in Ripley.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Turning Old Plants into Job Generators

Our research for BoomtownUSA has shown us some regions and towns that appear to have special potential. One of the areas that continued to pop up in our research was northern MS. When Toyota announced that they were going to build a major new assembly plant in Tupelo, MS our Todd Thoman put the area around Tupelo on a high priority. His research, work with TVA (the best utility company ED group we’ve run across) and miles on the road resulted in us buying three manufacturing buildings in Ripley, MS (population 5,478) that were built by BenchCraft to make upholstered furniture. I made my first visit to Ripley last week for a ribbon cutting and tour.

BenchCraft was a locally founded business that started in 1976. The five owners made a small fortune but sold out to a company that subsequently sold it to another. Employment peaked in the early 80s at 2,100 employees, definitely making it the largest employer in a county of 21,160. By 1995 it fell to 1,500 and was down to 1,100 last year but has fallen to only 450 now. BenchCraft is suffering and the town/county has suffered with it. And, we hope to help be one of the catalysts that help the area to recover.

The county has a very strong manufacturing base with 39.5% of the jobs in that sector (67th highest percentage in the USA!). One of the reasons why Toyota picked nearby Tupelo was the manufacturing tradition in the region and Ripley’s base should make our job much easier.

When you have a major company like BenchCraft downsizing, it can be a big negative for the town. Some people will sit around and talk about the “good old days” but what is needed is to figure out a way to use old buildings like the ones we bought as a lure to bring in the next BenchCraft. That is what we hope to do and my conversations with many local citizens convinced me that we made a great decision in choosing Ripley.

And, if you need some space, we’ve got some for lease in a great MS town!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Leveraging Their Resources

Godfrey, IL (population 16,286) is named for a Boston sea captain who decided that the big bend in the Mississippi River was the place to settle down and raise his eight daughters. Captain Benjamin Godfrey owned and operated numerous businesses, made and lost several fortunes but left a legacy for Godfrey when he donated the funds and several thousand acres of land to start the Monticello Female Seminary in 1835 as a place where his daughters could get an education. The school was converted to Lewis & Clark Community College and continues to grow in importance as the Godfrey area transitions from a heavy industrial area into more of a service one.

The town was first incorporated in 1991 and with 36 square miles within its municipal boundaries it is one of the largest IL towns in land size. The town lies adjacent to Alton and is about 40 miles north of St. Louis, MO.

I was in Godfrey last week for a regional event that looked at how the region could better utilize its wonderful natural and logistical assets. The natural ones are quickly obvious in a tour of the area. Being at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers brings some wonderful history and the migration of many waterfowl, including some wonderful pelicans that we snuck up on during my tour. The area is famous for its eagle population and I’ve been there several times to watch the eagles swoop into the river to scoop up an unsuspecting fish.

The Corridor 67 Coalition is focused upon leveraging its location to help complete four lanes from Alton up to the Quad Cities. With 70% of the road completed, there is a push on to complete the remaining gaps.

The views from the Mississippi River bluffs are incredible and a brick house like the one shown here can be purchased for around $400,000.

The Godfrey area has some wonderful assets that could be fully utilized if groups like the one I talked to stay together and work cooperatively.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

The Mississippi River gave birth to Cape Girardeau, starting in the 1730s when Jean Baptiste Giradot, for whom the city is named, established a trading post at a rock promontory jutting from the west bank of the Mississippi River. By the time that Lewis and Clark passed by on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1803 the little town boasted a population of 1,111. It was here that General Grant assumed command of the Union Army in 1861 and that Mark Twain memorialized in his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi. Cape Girardeau has a rich, memorable history that is entwined with the river that runs at its front door.

Unfortunately, that river has a history of spilling out of its banks and ravaging downtowns like Cape Girardeau. Every few years, when the rains and snows in MN, WI and IA come flowing down by the Cape, businesses would be wiped out. In 1956 work began on a flood wall to protect downtown Cape Girardeau. Completed in 1964 at a cost of $4 million, the wall has saved the historic downtown many times, especially during the flood of 1993 when the river crested at 48.49 feet, almost 17 feet above flood stage.

However, that wall also cuts off the river from the downtown, so much so, that you hardly know that the river is there as you wonder the historic downtown streets. In fact, that wall would look more like a prison wall if it weren’t for some local citizens who decided to turn the lemons on that wall into lemonade. They’ve painted some wonderful murals along the length of the wall that both depict the history of the town and also famous people of MO.

The Mississippi River Tales Mural stretches for 1,100 feet with 24 separate panels that each tells a portion of the rich history of the town. The Missouri Wall of Fame lies adjacent and shows 46 famous people who either were born in MO or achieved fame while living in the state: from President Harry S. Truman to Mark Twain to the outlaws Frank & Jesse James. Local Cape Girardeau native borns include radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and NASA astronaut Linda Godwin, also on the wall.

When you’ve got a big old wall like that flood wall, you can either sit back and look at each day or you can turn it into a historical draw like Cape Girardeau.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bite Your Tongue

In show business you wish someone luck with a “break a leg”. In story telling you tell them “bite your tongue.”

We were at the Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival this past weekend. Cape Girardeau’s motto is “Where a river turns a thousand tales”, so it was appropriate that they should be hosting such a festival.

Chuck Martin who heads up the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau came up with the idea for this first of what they hope will be many such festivals when he went to Jonesborough, TN to the National Storytelling Festival which attracts over 10,000 visitors from around the USA. There he met several nationally known story tellers and brought them to Cape Girardeau.

Martin wrote in the city newsletter, “I grew up in a small town in a time when there were no cell phones, no computers, no pagers, no e-mail, no Internet. The TV was a black and white and offered three fuzzy channels and was seldom watched. I grew up in my grandparent’s backyard. In looking back, I now marvel at the nightly ritual that took place. My parents and grandparents visited each evening with their neighbors to the right and left. They were outside actually having conversations face to face with other human beings. We didn’t have text messaging, but we did have the Davie Street grapevine. And the stories flowed freely and richly each evening.”

For three days this past weekend, the Cape reinvented those backyard days with a mixture of stories from nationally known and Midwestern storytellers. We hope to return as the festival will undoubtedly grow.

By coincidence, as I was scanning my numerous newsletters this past weekend, I learned that McCook, NE is holding their Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival the weekend of May 30th. If you are nearby, you ought to go.

I’m going to be monitoring storytelling. This could be a trend that has some legs with the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Visioning For the Future--Preserving the Past

The Missouri Valley Community Action Agency Poverty to Prosperity Summit was held in the brand new Martin Community Center. The Center is also home to the new Nicholas Beazley Aviation Museum. Both were constructed this past year as a result of $3 million in donations, quite a feat for a town of 12,433.

Penny Nicholas and Howard Beazley were partners in one of the many airplane manufacturing companies that sprung up during the 1920s. Marshall, MO was home to two, The Nicholas—Beazley Aircraft Company and the Marshall Aircraft Company. It also was the location of the largest flight school in the country, bringing in hundreds of fledgling pilots from all over the country.

Nicholas—Beazley parts were used in building the Spirit of St. Louis which Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic to great fame in 1927. In 1930 one of its test pilots, Barney Zimmerley, set a light aircraft altitude record when he soared to 24,074 feet…and without any oxygen equipment on board!

Unfortunately, the company met its demise in early 1931 during the Great Depression after having built about 200 planes. Today, a dedicated group of volunteers is collecting some of those old planes, refurbishing them and displaying them at a brand new museum that was lovingly paid for by the community to help preserve some of their rich history.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Poverty to Prosperity

The Missouri Valley Community Action Agency held their first Poverty to Prosperity Summit for two days last week in Marshall, MO (population 12,433). The Agency services seven counties in north central MO that range in size from Chariton County (population 8,438) up to Johnson County (population 48,258). Families below the poverty level in those seven counties ranged from 5% to 12%. I was there to talk to the 200+ in attendance.

Some of the goals of Missouri Valley in putting on the summit were to envision:

1. Communities where poverty is not allowed to exist

2. Communities where all citizens thrive

3. Communities where all citizens of all ages are valued, cared for and healthy

4. Communities led by men and women who understand that community health and prosperity is dependent upon the provision of real opportunities

Among the many different ideas discussed by the participants was the idea of entrepreneurism. A Labor Availability study done in 2005 for West Central MO showed that 37,947 out of 126,278 in the available labor pool have considered starting their own business.

Chariton County, the smallest county of the seven, highlighted a $30,000 revolving loan pool that they’ve targeted to youth entrepreneurs that will be administered by those same youth. One of the entrepreneurs they’ve helped already is 18 year old Kaitlynn Reichert who has started Sycamore Valley Farm Gourmet Cheesecakes.

They’re on the right track toward prosperity by focusing on young entrepreneurs.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Restoring Old Grandeur

When Charles Beardmore opened the 32,000 sf Beardmore Block in 1922 there was a gala celebration in Priest River, ID (population 1,754). The facility was the center of life in Priest River, housing the local theater, Beardmore’s timber and mining offices, a department store, butcher shop, grand ballroom and hardware store.

As with many old buildings in small towns, the building has gradually deteriorated, needs a new roof and become a bit of an eye-sore. A year and a half ago, Beardmore’s great grandson Brian Runberg decided he wanted to preserve the unique building. Runberg is a Seattle architect and developer who used to spend his summers in Priest River.

I was in Priest River two years ago and was incredibly impressed with the way that the natural beauty of the region is attracting so many people to the community. Runberg probably said it better, “This building is a tangible link between the rich heritage of Priest River and its future as an emerging region in the early 21st century.”

Runberg is pursuing Gold-Certification for the building, planning to recycle 95% of all of the materials used in the reconstruction. Plans include professional office suites on the upper floor and retail on the ground floor with the old theater reopened.

It’s great to see someone come back home and resurrect the heritage of the community.