Shirley Phillips

Sac City

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Shirley Phillips, president of the U.S. Highway 20 Association, poses near the Sac City access from the four-lane highway.

SAC CITY — Sometime in October of this year, Shirley Phillips will be attending a ribbon cutting for the last 40 mile section of U.S. Highway 20 to be completed as a four-lane route.

It will be the final link in an Iowa four-lane highway that’s been her passion and much of her life’s work since 1988 when she began with the U.S. 20 Corridor Association. She is currently the group’s president.

“This year is my 30th anniversary,” she said. “I got to work with a lot of people that were critical to success. Doing it has been a fun opportunity.”

Phillips has spent most of her professional life helping communities with economic development. The Highway 20 work was spurred on by the need for an efficient transportation route.

She realized that right away in 1988.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Shirley Phillips, president of the U.S. Highway 20 Association, looks down a section of the four-lane highway near Sac City.

“We need to get these highways done,” she said. “We recognized early that northwest Iowa was the largest land mass in the state without a four-lane highway.”

“Now it has one,” she said. “The goal was to bring economic diversity to all the businesses located along the corridor and help existing ones grow. If you’re not within 30 miles of a four-lane you won’t prosper.”

She’s seeing the payoff.

“There’s all kinds of businesses that have started and expanded along the corridor,” she said.

Phillips said it’s up to the communities along the U.S. Highway 20 corridor to take advantage of the opportunity.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Shirley Phillips, executive director of Western Iowa Tourism Region, looks over the giant 9,370 pound popcorn ball on display in Sac City. It’s the fourth giant popcorn ball who’s construction Phillips has overseen.

“They were going nowhere without transportation,” she said. “A four-lane should be a benefit, if they don’t step up, that’s their problem.”

Sometimes that means spending money to make money.

“Holstein has invested $20 million,” she said. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take advantage of it.”

In addition to her work with the U.S. 20 Corridor Association, Phillips has also served as the executive director of Sac County Economic and Tourism Development.

In 2013, she became the executive director of the Western Iowa Tourism Region.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Shirley Phillips, president of the U.S. Highway 20 Association, takes a drive down a section of the four-lane highway near Sac City recently.

“I traded one county for 36,” she said.

She encourages the communities to not only have something to attract visitors, but also a nice environment for them to visit in.

“You can have the best attractions, but if your town looks like a dump nobody will come anyway.” she said.

That nice environment is critical for a community’s success, especially in attracting business and their workers.

“We are so short of labor that if we don’t make the kinds of communities that families want to move to then we’ll continue to be short.” she said.

Sac City is doing just that, she said. The John Christ Trust has left the community $5.5 million for improvements and upkeep of those improvements.

Several projects including new playground equipment and ball courts in the park, environmental sculpture and a small park have added value to the community.

There is also the attraction in Sac City — the infamous, or famous, popcorn ball.

The current version is housed in its own building and was created in 2016.

Even at 9,370 pounds Guiness has denied them the record.

“Guiness won’t give us the record because we didn’t eat it,” she said. “Who in the hell can eat a 9,370 pound popcorn ball. They’re arguing with us yet.”

Phillips has been the driving force behind the series of ever larger popcorn balls.

“I built them all,” she joked.

When the first one was supplanted by a larger one somewhere else, Phillips came up with an idea for its destruction that would put Sac City loudly on the map.

“The first one,” she said. “We tried exploding it. We used seven sticks of dynamite. They plunged it and it just went thump in big chunks. It just laid there.”

Popcorn balls number two and three were broken up by more conventional methods and the pieces fed to livestock.

The event brought the community together, attracted visitors and brought recognition to the local popcorn industry. Plus, she said, everyone had fun.

Phillips, who was born in Sac City, grew up in Lytton. Before her work with economic development and the U.S. 20 Corridor Association, she worked in several family businesses including her husband Jerry’s auto repair shop.

“I had non-traditional female jobs,” she said. “My family owned and operated a farm equipment business for 10 years. I’d sell tractors in the morning and cars in the afternoon.”