Jefferson revival emerges as topic at presidential forum

STORM LAKE — Pulitzer Prize-winning Iowa journalist Art Cullen used the developing Pillar Technology software company in Jefferson — and its ties to Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna — as an example of what can bridge the rural-urban divide in a line of questioning Saturday afternoon at a high-profile presidential candidate forum in Storm Lake.

Cullen, on stage at Buena Vista University as the moderator for the Heartland Forum, which drew national media, asked U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and possible presidential candidate, if an event in Jefferson with Silicon Valley leaders centered around Pillar and its potential as a catalyst for more growth can be mirrored in other rural communities.

“He (Khanna) is getting companies to come into Iowa in partnership with community colleges to give these kids these digital skills to come out with an associate’s degree and make $75,000 a year in Jefferson, Iowa,” Cullen, the co-owner and editor of The Storm Lake Times, said. “How can we template that all over the country, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio?”

Ryan said that 18 months ago he went with venture capitalists with Khanna on a Comeback Cities Tour that started in Youngstown, Ohio, and hit other places in the Rust Belt.

The Ohio congressman said the government should use the tax code and other incentives to lure investment into distressed communities and rural America.

“That’s how this is going to happen,” Ryan said. “It includes government action with regard to broadband, with regard to community colleges, with regard to infrastructure — also with regard to refurbishing our downtowns.”

Ryan said Jefferson, and other rural communities, are fortunate to have Khanna as advocate.

“Ro is on it, Ro is one of the leaders,” Ryan said. “Him and I get along really, really well around figuring out how to do this. This is doable.”

Ryan said the next five to 10 years in the United States will involve boosting the economy by scaling ideas working in larger cities to smaller ones.

Pillar, with a 70-person location in downtown Des Moines, plans to open its Jefferson branch, what the company calls a Forge, this summer and employ 30 to 40 people in software development, with clients that include the San Francisco 49ers professional football team. 

The planned Pillar starting wage in Jefferson: $65,000.

Iowa Central Community College is building a campus in Jefferson to, among other things, serve as a primary feeder to Pillar.

Leading technology figures from household Silicon Valley brands like Microsoft and LinkedIn visited Jefferson on Dec. 8 for a landmark event organized by Pillar’s Linc Kroeger to bridge rural America and prosperous reaches of the West Coast.

The event has garnered national attention.

Khanna, a Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley area of California in Congress, said 180,000 to 200,000 tech jobs that are being outsourced internationally can be done instead in rural places in the nation.

Khanna sees it as a way to reduce political polarization, much of which springs from a rural-urban divide.

“Mark down this night, because it is the start of a revolution,” DMACC President Rob Denson said that evening at a reception at RVP-1875’s History Boy Theatre.

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