Adams receives Rand Fisher award

The 8th Annual Iowa Rural Summit held earlier this month included a special recognition of six rural leaders, including Montgomery County Development Corporation executive director Steve Adams. Adams was honored for his economic development work in Montgomery County and across Southwest Iowa.   
The Rand Fisher Rural Leadership Award, named for Red Oak native Rand Fisher and sponsored by the IADG Community Foundation, recognizes individuals in rural economic and community development, philanthropy, the arts and utilities.  
The honorees are nominated by friends, colleagues or anyone who values their contributions to rural places.  The final selection is by an IRDC screening committee.
Adams was cited for his leadership of Red Oak Chamber of Commerce, Red Oak Industrial Foundation and Montgomery County Development Corporation, as well as his 20+ years with Iowa State University as a Community and Economic Development Field Specialist.
Adams, who moved to Red Oak from Villisca when he was 10 years old, graduated from Red Oak High School and did economic development in Texas starting in 1984 in Fort Worth, before returning to Red Oak in the ’90s.
“I started here in 1992. I came in after Al Nelson was in this job. He was the chamber director, and after Al went to work for JII, I came in to the position. At the time, it was a combined chamber and Red Oak Industrial Foundation. The entities themselves were separated. Now it’s the Red Oak Chamber and Industry Association,” Adams said. “In 1995, we formed MCDC. I was still doing the Red Oak Industrial Foundation job as well, but then Dawn LeRette became the chamber director, and I became the county development director along with the director of the Red Oak Industrial Foundation.”
In 1999, Adams went to work for Iowa State University in the Community and Economic Development unit of Extension and Outreach, a role he maintained for 22 years, retiring in 2021. It was after that when Adams said he found himself in a position to return to MCDC.
“I was having HVAC problems at my house, and Scott Allensworth had come to do the repairs. He was on the search committee for this position and he said the search for a new director wasn’t going as expected. I told Scott that I didn’t want a full-time job, but that I could step in on a part-time basis, after I talked to my wife. I threw my hat in the ring and interviewed. This has turned out to be anything but part-time, but that’s okay,” Adams commented.
Adams first became involved in economic development while teaching in Texas, after Adams asked the students what they wanted to do with their lives.
“A student asked me what my ideal career goal was, and I said I wanted to do something in business and public relations. She happened to be working for an engineering firm at the time that was looking for someone to do business and public relations. I got involved with them, and then the Mansfield, Texas Chamber of Commerce was looking for their first economic development director, so I applied for that and got it, and that segue got me into economic development,” stated Adams.
During that time, Adams was beginning to raise his family, and he felt he didn’t want to raise his family in a big city.
“It didn’t appeal to me. When the opportunity arrived for me to come back to Red Oak, I decided to come back to Red Oak to raise my family,” Adams said.
Over the years, Adams said he’s been given a lot of opportunities along the way in his economic development career.
“I was on the Iowa Finance Authority Board of Directors for 12 years, and that board does all the housing programs in the state of Iowa. Those were governor’s appointments. We also started the Southwest Iowa Coalition in 1995 made up of counties promoting economic development. I’ve worked with a ton of really great people. You don’t do all this by yourself. I had a lot of mentors, including my uncle, George Maher. There’s a lot of really great people I’ve worked with and with everyone you work with, you learn just a little bit more and gather experience and expertise.”
Adams was in the same class as Rand Fisher in 1973, and both admitted it was ironic Adams was given the award named after him. Adams praised the work Fisher has done
“I would say Rand is probably the single biggest contributor to economic development in the state of Iowa over the last quarter of a century. He’s had a really distinguished career, and as I’ve said, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best and brightest in the field,” Adams explained.
Adams said he was nominated for the award by Cole Walters of Bedford Economic Development.
“The coalition went dormant back in 2018. Cole got active in bringing a group of southwest Iowa economic development people together. He found out more about my background, and I’ve been working with him and other economic developers from Corning and Clarinda  on the FMTC fiber optic project for all four communities. When Cole found out there were open nominations for the Rand Fisher award, he put my name in,” advised Adams.
In addition to Adams, the Rand Fisher award has also been awarded to southwest Iowa residents Mickey Andersen of Stanton and Beth Waddle of Corning. Adams said it was a good feeling to join the select group of people receiving the award.
“They pick about five people a year to be recognized, so it’s a small fraternity of people at this point, as the awards have only been given out for about five years,” Adams said. “Everyone who gets the award is given their own individual piece of Vermeer Glass, and each one is a different piece, so none of them are alike.”
While Adams said retirement is not on the horizon yet, it was something that would happen eventually.
“I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t work in this profession past 70. I’ll be 69 on my next birthday. By that time, I’ll have been in economic development for 42 years. A lot of people come to me to write grants for them, and I’ve been prolific at that over the years. That’s something I will probably still do after retirement on a retainer or grant-by-grant basis going forward. All told, I’ve written more than $900,000 worth of grants to the YMCA, and around $350,000 towards Expand the Grand grants. If you start adding them up, I’ve written about $4 million worth of grants and business incentives to help out over the years,” Adams stated.
Being in an economic development capacity in Red Oak for many years, Adams said he’s seen the city go through a lot of tough times.
“I was here when Eveready closed, and we lost the Murphy Calendar Company and Traco Windows left. While we’ve seen a loss of business, American Hydraulics has come in, we recruited Fres-co to town, Minsa, which is now Bunge, was a recruit to town, and Johnson Controls, which is now Clarios, was a recruit to town. George Maher said it best. Some days you wake up in rural Iowa, and you fight to break even. A lot of that is true,” Adams advised. “However, the other day, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg said people claim rural Iowa is dying. But if that’s the case, why do we still have a need in rural Iowa for housing, additional childcare, and fiber. All of those things point to a part of the state that has needs and is working to continue to grow.”
Still, Adams said rural Iowa is faced with its own set of challenges, especially in terms of population.
“Population is definitely getting smaller in rural Iowa, and there’s a lot of out migration. There are things that we have to overcome, but it’s not impossible,” Adams commented.
Also, the landscape of Red Oak’s downtown square has changed a lot from his first tenure to his second, but he’s glad to see it still successful thanks to the efforts of many.
“Bill Boeye, who was city attorney at the time, and I formed the Downtown Urban Renewal Area and the TIF district. It’s given me nothing but an immense amount of pride to see the amount of money that has gone back to improving these downtown buildings. We’re now a downtown historic district, and so much money has gone into façade improvements in block grants and other funding. People who have been away for a while tell me how good the downtown looks, especially during Junction Days. The downtown makes a really good presentation to most people, and not every town in Iowa can say that. I’ve been to a lot of towns in Iowa over the years. Not many look as good as Red Oak does. We’ve done a really good job of improving the looks of the community.”
Adams said the community has also lost most the old leadership, like Charles Wilson and George Maher, people that were drivers of what went on in the town. Thankfully, Red Oak has managed to find new leadership.
“I’m excited to see people like Jason Orme take up leadership positions, and he’s not the only one. People like Bryce Johnson and Bret Blackman and Joey Norris are getting on boards and commissions and being active in the direction of the community. That’s what it’s all about,” Adams explained.
As he approaches the horizon of retirement, Adams said there are some things still on his bucket list he’d like to see accomplished.
“I’d love to see Red Oak have 100% fiber. That’s definitely been on my bucket list. I also did some work on the StudioOne Townhomes project, and that will be a big step for the community. There’s some big things happening at Villa Village as well. And while I didn’t have anything to do with the middle school project, I think that’s going to make a big improvement not only in additional housing, but to bring some more vitality to the downtown,” Adams commented. “I’d also love to get at least one general merchandise store in town. The biggest challenge is still the workforce issue. We have a number of companies in town that have jobs they can’t fill. We have jobs happening now, and new jobs that will happen in the next 12 months. That’s the one dilemma, if I was going to pick one, that I have yet to solve.”
As for what he loves about the work he does, he loves the fact that there’s something new all the time.
“Just when you think you know everything there is to know, someone will come in with an idea you’ve never heard of before, and you have to become knowledgeable about that topic. And then you have to constantly start over. It’s a challenge and a chase. It also takes patience. An idea sometimes will take years to come to fruition. Patience is an absolute necessity in this business. A deal can come together as quickly as it falls apart.”

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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