Acting in Catalytic Ways: WE-LEAD

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Karen Lathrop is the executive director for West Liberty Economic Area Development (WE-LEAD) and an ISU Extension community economic development specialist. Karen says:

Six years ago West Liberty Economic Area Development created a partnership with Iowa State University Extension. The partnership has focused on creating economic development in rural communities. As part of WE-LEAD, we’ve been working a lot with our downtown, trying to make sure that we keep the storefronts filled, and making sure that they look appealing to people that want to bring their business to our town.

Right here is our Rendezvous Park — a pocket park that was put in to try to encourage people to come downtown. … This is Local Grounds, a company that we helped get started. It’s a coffee shop and a community gathering place.

Probably one of our biggest economic drivers in our town is the movie theatre … it plays every single night. It’s never been closed in over a hundred years.

We work with West Liberty Foods, which is our major employer. They employ about 800 people in our community. Their West Liberty Foods Market is their retail outlet for turkey products.

Larson Tool and Machining is one of our business retention success stories.

Economic development is wealth generation, and so we want to make sure that our companies are sound and are making a profit. We want to make sure that people can afford to live here, and we want to make sure there are a lot of services here for people to take part in.

I am in schools often, looking at ways to connect to kids with local industries and making sure that they understand what careers are available to them once they get out of school.

I work a lot with local businesses to make sure that they have the resources to be successful, whether it’s working on their business plan, identifying ways that they can grow, or working on their marketing plan, creating awareness. I work a lot with entrepreneurs and do coaching. … I help them through that process and make it less intimidating, and break it down into smaller pieces so that it’s not overwhelming.

Through this position with Iowa State and WE-LEAD, we’ve really been able to be a catalyst for change in the community — being able to utilize university resources and expertise, and to be able to connect people to other resources that are in the field with Extension. … It’s really been a great partnership and has moved our community forward.

By being able to partner with Extension, we’ve been able to garner more resources. The fact that Extension actually came in and allowed us to do this — look at rural economic development, really focusing on the business base … really improving them and helping them grow — is a critical factor. Iowa State’s involvement … has really made all the difference in the world.

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