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Butler County REC is a small cooperative that’s had a huge impact on the economic growth of its northeast Iowa community.
The 5,100-member, Allison-based co-op and its partners have helped bring millions of dollars of development and thousands of jobs to its four-county service territory.
In the past two decades, the co-op has leveraged U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans to help facilitate about $112 million in investment and create or retain nearly 3,000 jobs for both co-op members and non-members.
“We’ve been very aggressive,” says Craig Codner, the co-op’s CEO and general manager. “Our goal is for the area to be an importer of jobs, not an exporter.”
Codner, who became CEO in 2012 after serving as the co-op’s energy efficiency and key accounts manager, says he is continuing a bold economic development effort initiated by Butler County REC in the late 1980s. Back then, the farm crisis hit Midwest farmers hard, and the co-op worked to provide opportunities where none had previously existed.
“One of the biggest advantages we have had has been the support of our board of directors and their willingness to put in infrastructure to support future load,” he says.
Today, the co-op has continued to spur growth in part through its revolving loan fund program, which provides low-interest USDA loans for business startups or expansions in its service territory. It also assists with financing, infrastructure and development of industrial parks and sites. The co-op serves six industrial parks with more than 20 businesses that support more than 1,000 jobs.
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One of the biggest successes is Butler Logistics Park in Shell Rock, about 15 minutes from Butler County REC’s headquarters. The co-op has helped recruit major businesses to the site, including an ethanol plant, a rail car maintenance service and a soy processing plant that will open in the fall of 2022.
“The largest part of how we have developed that park is through partnerships,” Codner says. “It’s not just about us.”
The co-op has teamed with Iowa Northern Railway, Butler-Grundy Development Alliance, the water company, county supervisors and the Iowa Area Development Group, which was founded in 1985 by electric co-ops, municipal utilities and independent telecommunication companies throughout the state.
“A lot of times, it’s all of us coming together to persuade a business to come here,” says Katie LaBree, the co-op’s business development director. “It’s about what kind of package we can provide. Can we supply them with the rates, power and additional services that they need? Can we fill gaps in their financing with incentives?”
Amy Homan, marketing director at Iowa Northern Railway, says Butler County REC and its generation and transmission power provider, Corn Belt Power Cooperative, have played a crucial role in attracting new business to the area. Butler County REC’s willingness to use its USDA funds to help fill Butler Logistics Park has been key, she says.
“They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is,” Homan says. “They’re not going to do anything foolish with their members’ money, but they’re willing to take a calculated risk and take advantage of opportunities when they come along.
By seizing opportunities, the co-op has helped its members, says Rand Fisher, president of the Iowa Area Development Group.
“It has helped strengthen and diversify cooperative sales while fostering local investment and job creation—all of which benefits the members of the cooperative,” Fisher says. “Butler County REC leaders have also recognized that business development success is tied to the vitality of the communities in their service territory. For that reason, the co-op has been generous in supporting housing efforts, education and health care throughout the region.”
Co-ops looking to duplicate Butler County REC’s success will need patience, Codner says.
“You can’t expect results in a year or two; this is long-term planning,” he says. “We didn’t have much growth in the 2000s, so we focused on retaining what we had, which is still a crucial part of what we do.”
There is fierce competition in rural towns for new businesses, so Butler County REC and its partners stay in close touch with site selectors and attend trade shows throughout the nation, Codner says.
“You can’t give up,” he says. “You’ve got to keep building for the future.”