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POWERS: Attracting new South Dakotans is worth the effort

Pat Powers, South Dakota War College blog  About 40 years ago, my family came across the country from suburban New Jersey because my parents wanted a better life for their children and the East Coast was getting to be a not-so-nice place at the time.

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My father, a member of federal law enforcement, had put in for a transfer to Minneapolis and they noted they needed someone in Pierre. His reply: “Where’s that?”

Them: “South Dakota.”

Dad: “OK, I don’t care.”

And from that ignominious beginning, my family packed into a green Pontiac station wagon with faux wood panel sides, children not belted in, and started driving.

My mom, an Iowa girl, was no stranger to the Midwest. But as she started the barren trek up Highway 83 to Pierre from the Interstate, she started wondering, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” And it didn’t help that we happened to arrive in Pierre about a week after a tornado had ripped through town.

That was our “welcome to South Dakota.”

Aside from being transferred to the state as a member of federal law enforcement, for what other reasons should people who grew up in vastly alien environments come here?

They would come here for opportunities. For a better way of life. They would come here for reasons besides our “mild weather and urban nightlife.” They would come here for jobs and an environment in which they could follow their dreams. All they need is fertile planting soil for those dreams.

I bring this up as Gov. Dennis Daugaard was out in Rapid City recently talking about economic development and what the state is doing to attract jobs and people to this state.

Daugaard spoke on programs such as the New South Dakotans initiative and how state government can partner with private development firms in economic development projects.

Some projects have met with wild success, some with mild success and some have fallen short. Some, as in the attempt to lure foreign investment through the EB-5 program, have come under criticism, and unfortunately at times, wild-eyed Internet conspiracy theories that Chinese communists are trying to take over the country.

Of course, the governor wishes every deal could be a sure thing. But it’s not. However, the clear message we should take from him is that they’re trying.

In the face of other more populous and amenity-driven states that are offering incentives of their own to attract business, South Dakota is doing a pretty good job of holding its own. And it’s been proven time and again by our state being named the No. 1 place in the country to do business, according to CNBC and others.

In the last few years, some have attempted to label economic development as “crony capitalism” and other derisive terms. But they’re also some of the same people who will howl when their schools shut down, their grocery stores close and their towns die because there are not enough families to populate them.

When a town only has a bar and a post office left, it’s not a thriving place. It’s just one bad harvest or tornado away from being a memory. Is it worthwhile for the state to attempt to sow the seeds of success and to try? I say yes.

I look at the example of the state’s efforts at economic development much like the efforts to make the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake a reality.

It is a project that cost a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars, and we sought outside partners to make it happen, even though it may not have succeeded. We’re only starting to see the benefits of what this lab can do for our state. But everyone recognizes it as an investment for the future.

Just like the Homestake refit, the state’s efforts at economic development should be applauded and continued. Are there times they may stumble taking a chance on a project that may have risk? Yes. There is an element of risk with any investment.

But the payoffs — and there is a proven track record of them — are jobs, growing communities and the opportunity to give our children a solid reason to stay in South Dakota.

Those are risks worth taking. And on behalf of our state’s taxpayers, our state needs to keep taking them.

—  Pat Powers is operator of S.D. War College, a conservative blog dedicated to South Dakota politics.