Governor to Jefferson: Rural Iowa ‘counting on you’
With an expansion from Des Moines to Jefferson Pillar Technology is the rare modern bridge that’s crossing Iowa’s rural-urban divide.
So big, so consequential is the announcement of the software development company’s Jefferson strategy that more than 200 people — including Iowa’s top politicians — celebrated it at a reception in Pillar’s modern offices (a sort of Silicon Valley meets Locust Street) in downtown Des Moines last Wednesday.
Pillar, which develops software for a mind-boggling variety of needs, recently announced it will be opening an office in Jefferson, a first-of-its-kind gamble on rural Iowa for a high-tech company that will create as many as 30 jobs with starting salaries of $55,000 to $60,000. After three years on the job, Pillar officials have said, that salary could increase to as much as $75,000.
Pillar will hedge that bet with the creation of a talent pipeline running between a new Iowa Central Community College-managed regional career academy for area high schoolers in Jefferson along U.S. Highway 30 and its downtown office, to be located in the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street after a $1.7-million renovation.
Pillar could start settling into its new home as early as May 2019, officials said last Wednesday.
“To me, the biggest thank-you that I’m here for is the dreams of the future of the kids in Jefferson,” said Linc Kroeger, the Pillar visionary who has helmed the company’s Iowa’s involvement and move into Jefferson.
Established in 1996 and based in the booming university town of Columbus, Ohio, Pillar has an additional office — each site called a Forge — in Ann Arbor, Mich., home to the University of Michigan.
An office in Palo Alto, Calif., a West Coast “listening post” for the company, is located across the street from the flagship Apple Store.
“You say you put a lot of emotion into this,” said U.S. Rep. David Young, R-Van Meter, who represents Des Moines and a sweep of 16 southern Iowa counties. “There’s nothing worth doing if you don’t put emotion into it. Linc had a great dream and vision.”
What’s happening in Jefferson with Pillar could develop across Iowa, Young said.
“Don’t depend on the government to guarantee that these things are going to happen,” Young said. “It’s the entrepreneurs that are making this happen. It’s the people who are risking their capital, putting all their emotion into it to make these happen.”
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he learned during the farm crisis of the 1980s that Iowa had to expand its economic footprint well beyond agriculture.
High tech plays a role in that, Grassley.
“You see that represented here, and you see that the people who are involved here aren’t just thinking in terms of Polk County, but are thinking in terms of not only doing this to help agriculture, but to help jobs in rural America as well,” Grassley said. “That’s what we are here to glorify today.”
Pillar proves that small towns in Iowa are not forgotten, said the veteran legislator.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said she has three times visited Pillar’s Forge — location — in Des Moines and seen expansion.
“That is the kind of thing we love seeing happening in Iowa, and I’m so excited to see that your next big idea is to expand the forge into rural Iowa,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the “heart and soul and fabric” of Iowa comes from its small towns.
“I’ve always said that Iowa is one big small town,” she said.
She thinks the Jefferson Pillar location will be a catalyst for more development around the state.
“To Jefferson, to all you all people out there, I’ve got a lot of confidence in you, and I am counting on you,” Reynolds said. “We want to do this in a lot of communities around the state of Iowa. We believe this is the secret sauce.”
Kroeger said Pillar is eyeing other rural Iowa cities for locations, or forges, and he listed the following communities in an interview with this newspaper: Carroll, Spencer, Estherville, Spirit Lake, Iowa Falls, Mason City.
“Right now, the key is we have to make Jefferson successful,” Kroeger said. “Nobody’s done this that I know of. It’s an experiment. Showing that it is successful, getting companies on board with stopping shipping their technology offshore and shipping it to Iowa, that’s what’s going to open the door to more rural communities.”
Kroeger said local leadership in Jefferson led his company to the community as its inaugural rural location.
“A big part of Jefferson was the community leadership really were hungry for the people and the future of Jefferson,” Kroeger said. “That was a big delineator from the communities I visited. There was just a desire, just like the bond vote passing, right. That was a very big step in showing the community wanted something for themselves. They want to take ownership of their own future.”
Local voters April 3 green-lighted construction of the career academy at the site of a new high school with approval of the Greene County Community School District’s $21.48 million bond referendum.
The academy will be equipped and staffed by Iowa Central Community College, and will offer training at no charge to students in four strands of curriculum, including computer software.
The vote was also a referendum of sorts on Pillar’s possible future in Jefferson — announced shortly before the vote, the company’s move was contingent on passage of the bond.
“More than half the people who work in this Forge are from rural Iowa,” Kroeger said, referring to the company’s 67 Des Moines employees. “The intelligence is there. There’s just no opportunities or education. We’re solving both of those.”
Currently, Kroeger said, it takes months of additional training for even graduates of four-year colleges and universities to do the work Pillar is doing.
The career academy would enable the company to, in a sense, genetically engineer its own workforce. Those newly minted software developers would then enter the workforce free of debt.