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Menner: Ag wealth transfer can bolster communities

By Staff | Oct 11, 2014

BILL MENNER, state director of U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development, speaks to members of the Ag Leaders committee Oct. 2 recommending an effort to fortify community foundations to write project grants, since USDA-RD’s traditional role has moved away from being primarily a grant-writing entity.



FORT DODGE – Iowa’s rural communities can be better served if they fortified community betterment foundations, and there is a plan to make it happen.

Bill Menner, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development, delivered this message Oct. 2 to members of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance’s Ag Leaders committee.

He also said there was a role Rural Development can play in the proposed Project Geode for the industrial ag park northwest of Fort Dodge.

Project Geode is a plan to build a pre-commercial scale bioscience facility for developing new biobased products, while creating educational and employment opportunities for students.

Menner said Iowa’s 12-year-old wealth transfer study determined that there “was a half-trillion dollars that will transfer to the next generations in the next 30 years.

“What if you took 3 or 5 percent of a half-trillion dollars and give it to community foundations for meaningful investments and projects?

“You wouldn’t need (Rural Development) anymore because you’d be able to do all these projects on your own.”

Menner said that over the past several years, Congress has redefined the agency’s role from a grant-writing entity to infrastructure banking and community developing.

As a result, when communities seek grants from Rural Development to complete improvement projects, the funds are not there.

He said his agency granted funds to the community foundation in Dubuque to form a rural philanthropic team to empower every foundation board in an eight-county area to pitch the foundation to area farmers and city residents, to build the capacity of small community foundations.

“Allamakee County, for example, has the highest per capita community capitol endowment of any rural community foundation in the state,” Menner said. “They taught the board how to be advocates for their own foundation.

“I’d love to take that blueprint and extend it to every umbrella foundation.”

Kelly Halsted, economic development director for the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, said she thought Menner’s talk about wealth was a good idea.

“I found it interesting,” Halsted said, “to seek farmers who want to leave some of their wealth with the communities where they made their money and reared their children.”

Ag park project

Project Geode is a partnership among Iowa Central Community College, Cargill and the Iowa Economic Development Authority to construct a pre-commercial scale manufacturing facility within the ag park, taking advantage of Cargill’s fermentation expertise, while providing academic and employment opportunities for Iowa students.

According to a business prospectus, dated Dec. 23, 2013, “Project Geode is exploring state and federal funding opportunities in an effort to alleviate the need for a return on capital investment, allowing companies to use the facility for a minimal fee.”

Menner said that the development of the bioscience facilities of Cargill and CJ BioAmerica in the ag park did not require USDA-RD assistance.

“But there will be future over-the-fence companies out there that need a loan guarantee,” Menner said.

He said with Iowa Central Community College involved, his agency’s “programs as a lender for essential public facilities and projects, the community college would be a suitable entity.

“We could help them with any project in their service area outside of Fort Dodge.

“Our office is trying to figure out with Cargill and ICCC what a possible role for us is to be.”

Halsted declined to comment on the project saying it’s in early planning stages and not ready for publication.

According to the prospectus, the 20-year impact of Project Geode could see:

  • $1.5 billion in capital investment in Iowa.
  • $108 million in new tax revenue.
  • More than 3,900 jobs created.

The Project Geode would commercialize biobased products.

Companies like Cargill, BASF and Novozymes are currently working on a biobased alternative to petroleum-based acrylic acid, a super absorbent polymer that can soak up large amounts of liquid, such as disposal diapers.

“Project Geode could play a crucial role in the commercialization of biobased products such as acrylic acid,” the prospectus said.

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