Search underway for new economic development director

Maureen Elbert planning for retirement from K/PACEDC

Maureen Elbert

ALGONA — The Kossuth County Economic Development Corporation was in its infancy when Maureen Elbert took the reigns as executive director in 1998.

Throughout the next 26 years she worked with leaders in business and industry, communities and government within Kossuth and Palo Alto counties, as well as contacts throughout the state to build and grow the organization into what it is today.

Elbert announced her plans to retire from her position with Kossuth and Palo Alto County Economic Development Corporation (K/PACEDC) last year and anticipates retirement in 2024. Kossuth and Palo Alto County combined into one economic development office in 2006. The board has been preparing for the upcoming transition for more than 18 months, and the search has begun to seek out a new executive director.

Elbert reflected on highlights of her economic development career and what she’ll miss most about stepping down from it.

“I’m going to miss it tremendously,” she said. “I will miss my friends from different states, throughout our state of Iowa and our region, and locally – the businesses and the leadership. You get very close to people over the course of time.”

Building the organization

When Elbert began with KCEDC in March 1998, the organization was less than two years old. Her focus, in addition to receiving economic development training and connecting with the various communities within the county, was creating the fundamental guidance documents and initial marketing pieces for KCEDC.

“Everything had to get formatted,” she said. “We had to get our handbook, our policies, mission, the logo, so everything…all of the fundamental pieces had to be put together. There was no real basis for the organization.”

Along with these tasks, Elbert also jumped right into training.

“I was very fortunate that the board sent me to the Heartland Institute immediately,” she said. “And then from there I went to EDI [Economic Development Institute]. You could do that training in a three-year window, but I chose to do mine in an 18-month window, because I wanted to learn.”

For the first three years with KCEDC, Elbert was the only paid staff person. It was an intense time that involved a combination of working through a long list of start-up tasks as well as reaching out and building new connections.

“I was learning about all of our communities, the leadership and business and industry that was present in those communities, and the challenges that they were having,” she said. “On the flip side, I was getting into all of our key conferences and started forming those relationships. I was very fortunate because my board took me to the Iowa Economic Development office in Des Moines my third day on the job. I was able to go through what was called ‘Getting to know IEDA’.”

Elbert credits the KCEDC board with understanding the importance of professional training and networking. She began making connections her first week on the job and continued to strengthen those relationships through serving on multiple boards on the local, regional and state level.

“This job takes you everywhere,” Elbert said.

Currently Elbert serves on the Institute for Decision Making’s Advisory Council, State Advisory Board of America’s Small Business Development Center of Iowa, the North Iowa Area Council of Governments board, and Revolving Loan Fund Commission for both Kossuth and Palo Alto counties, in addition to numerous other commitments.

In 2022, Elbert was honored with the Rand Fisher Rural Leadership Award from the Iowa Rural Development Council.

Serving on boards and commissions provided valuable networking opportunities for Elbert, but it also helped bring awareness of Kossuth and Palo Alto counties to those outside of the region.

Building the resources and relationships that have come to guide economic development in the two-county region has taken time and support from leaders, partners, communities and many others.

“You couldn’t do it all alone,” Elbert said. “It was like building blocks. I had this support from the board and the willingness to give me the time to get it done. It wasn’t instantaneous. We had to prove that we really were of value. You had one feat you had to get accomplished, then you had to go onto the next one, and then you went onto the next one. It was step by step by step of getting it done.”

Boosting business and industry

From the very start of her career, Elbert understood that her role in serving business and industry was paramount. As part of her economic development training, she wrote her thesis on how to build an industrial park. At the time, that project challenged her. Today, it’s become her favorite part of the job.

“I love to do business development,” she said. “I love meeting with businesses. I’m going to miss that a lot, my relationships over the years,”

K/PAEDC is committed to laying the groundwork for regional growth by providing assistance to businesses and communities in the area. Workforce initiatives range from performing an annual business survey and doing business call visits to completing an economic impact analysis for the area. From Elbert’s perspective, keeping up with current programs and information is a large part of the role.

“We’re a resource, that’s our main function,” she said. “If the executive director is not on top of things, and does not know the programs, then you have a vacant, open door of people coming in and not feeling like they’re getting the information that they need to have. We have always taken the time to help and work with whatever size of business that needs it, whether it’s a new start up, whether it’s an existing retail or existing larger business, or an industry. We have worked with them on any form of financial, technical, expansion efforts that they were looking at.”

In 2019, K/PACEDC received the Business Retention and Expansion Initiative Award through the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) and an award from Professional Developers of Iowa for Overall Business Retention and Expansion Program Award for Outstanding Workforce Initiatives.

“People don’t understand the necessity of having everything at your fingertips, because if you don’t…you lose. Where are your rails? Where are your available buildings? You need to have all of that tangible information,” Elbert said.

When people think about economic development, most people assume it means landing a new business. Elbert says it involves much more than that.

“85 percent of our job is to try to retain and expand our existing business and industry,” she said. “So, if we’re not doing the business survey and the business call visits and doing different services for the business, and meeting with the state partners and knowing the programs… then we’re not doing our job.”

Working within a positive and supportive culture has helped her greatly in her work, Elbert said.

“We’ve always had talented people in our area that have been a resource to come and help and assist us and advise on things that we were doing,” she said. “Partnerships are key, and so is leadership development. We’ve been so blessed. Our companies and businesses have made it an expectation for their staff to be very involved with events, economic development, chamber, just making sure that their staff is involved as a way of giving back. That made our area. It was just kind of a culture that was grown over time. I hope we never lose it. That’s been a highlight.”

Counties and communities collaborate

Helping facilitate collaboration and interconnection among the communities throughout Kossuth County was one of Elbert’s initial tasks, and a job she continues to invest herself in.

“That’s what really needed to happen for KCEDC – looking at it from the perspective that we are all partners in one effort.,” she said. “We are one organization for the county, and we really try to sustain that as the main focal point. We weren’t looking out for just one community or two communities, we were looking at the impact of all the communities. I think we provided some sources for them to start partners and relationships that are a phone call away. The trust level has been built.”

Elbert credits the willingness of local leaders to work with her, work with one another and reach out beyond their own community as the keys to success of the overall region.

“Our organization has been very, very lucky in having some top key leadership that has served on our board over the course of my 26 years.,” she said. “I’ve been so fortunate on so many levels, having them help direct and motivate this organization.”

In 2006 she had another challenge: bringing Kossuth and Palo Alto County Economic Development together.

The Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors and city administrator of Emmetsburg contacted Elbert to see if she was able to assist a specific company with an enterprise zone. With the help of her contacts in the Iowa Economic Development Authority office she was able to move things in the right direction. This experience resulted in a larger discussion about the possibility of Palo Alto and Kossuth County Economic Development joining forces.

“Our initial discussions with Kossuth County Economic Development Corporation revealed our combined effort had the potential to accomplish much more than either one of us could alone,” said Kris Ausborn, chief executive officer of Iowa Trust and Savings Bank. “By aligning our efforts and using the established strengths of KCEDC and their experienced staff, there is no doubt in my mind that PACEDC was able to successfully develop programs and show results in half the time. What would have taken PACEDC five or six years to get off the ground were operating efficiently in two to three years.”

The KCEDC staff and a few members of the executive board met with representatives of Palo Alto County. The group created a service agreement that outlined the tasks, responsibilities and expectations of the entities involved. From that initial service agreement, years of work followed, and support continued to grow.

“We’ve always had a really strong relationship with Palo Alto,” Elbert said. “And, like we’ve had on the KCEDC board, the PACEDC board has always had very key people. It was really built from that service agreement. It took about 21-22 months just to gather all of their data and get it current. That was a major thrust, and especially while continuing with what we were doing over here in Kossuth County. We just had to keep working on it.”

Gretchen Reichter, marketing and development coordinator for the City of Emmetsburg, believes that Elbert’s leadership with PACEDC has been instrumental in Emmetsburg’s business expansion and retention efforts.

“PACEDC has made continuous efforts to build and foster business relationships, connect local businesses with resources and partners, and advocate for business and industry at the state level,” she said. “PACEDC has also invested in the future of Kossuth and Palo Alto County by providing youth, community leaders, and organizations with a variety of educational and networking opportunities that will motivate and equip them to support community and economic development efforts in their communities.”

Building purposeful programs

Throughout her time in economic development, Elbert has built programs that promote connectivity and networking among the communities and counties she serves.

One of those committees is the Intern Program, an initiative that provides networking activities, job skills sessions and a countywide service project for college interns working in the Kossuth County area during the summer months. For some of the students, being in Kossuth County is coming home. For others, it’s a new experience in a new environment. Whether students are homegrown or here for the first time, Elbert and the intern committee provide activities that help the interns network with one another and business professionals in their field, enhance job skills and showcase the opportunities that exist in rural Iowa.

In 2020 the Intern Program received an award from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) for Excellence in Economic Development for communities with populations of 25,000 or less. The program also received recognition from Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2020, with a Future Ready Iowa acknowledgement.

“They really, truly could be our future workforce,” Elbert said. “That has really resonated in our area. After a few years, when they have been out in the workforce, they realize how important that is.”

Additional networking groups include the City Clerks quarterly meetings, Human Resources Network, Career-Intern Committee, Leadership Development sessions and the CEO Network.


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