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Survey: Local leaders show confidence in area's residents

In a recent survey, area governmental officials have demonstrated support for the general direction of the region's people and economy, whereas some concern was shown regarding workforce issues and an aging population.

A survey was completed earlier in August and presented Thursday during the Planning and Development District III regular meeting at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell.

In that survey, respondents were asked about the perceived regional strengths, with 90 percent believing that the area's natural resources (water, farmland, etc.) were facts. Eighty percent of respondents believed in the character of the population as being hardworking and family oriented, while 71 percent believed in community spirit and 66 percent in the region's cost of doing business, such as low taxes and labor expenses.

The survey had a low turnout, according to Greg Henderson, District III's executive director, but of the 41 respondents, he said there was confidence because those responding are "those who know what's going on" in small towns.

"The survey shows that there's a lot of confidence in this area," Henderson said. "People haven't given up, they haven't decided to cash it in. There's still hope for the future and they feel that we have enough assets and qualities to build upon and that still trumps the weaknesses."

The District III group, based in Yankton, helps municipal and county governments along with area nonprofit organizations around the region with development assistance and economic opportunities.

Asked about the region's weaknesses as realities or assumptions, slightly more than half (51 percent) felt the region's workforce — low numbers and lack of needed skills — was a reality. When asked about using immigration as a realistic option for addressing workforce shortages, the responses were split: 56 percent agreed it was a good idea, while 44 percent had some level of disagreement.

Respondents also were clear about the aging region population. Nearly 66 percent said the region's aging population was a reality, and along those lines, 83 percent said health care facilities were an expectation, while 63 percent felt that way about housing.

The survey also looked at the severity of regional threats for impact and timing. Of those responding, 90 percent felt the loss of population was an immediate- to medium-term threat. Retail leakage — both to larger communities and online sales — was an immediate threat for 58 percent of those responding, but 87 percent felt it was at least a threat for the future. Business succession uncertainties, including farms, were also on that list, with 85 percent feeling it was a medium to immediate threat.

The survey was done as part of District III's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) process, which is done every five years and expected to be completed in early 2019. The action plan is necessary to qualify for government assistance from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration. The process is aimed to help more economic growth and create goals in the district's 15-county area.

John Claggett, a Davison County Commissioner and the chairman of the District III board, said he took a lot of positives from the survey results.

"There's a sense of urgency about the points of infrastructure," he said. "We're going to have changes in our growth. In the Mitchell area, we've done well with our internet and those types of things, but I still look at roads and bridges, and the railroads will be a feeder system to our businesses."

Of the five industries leaders expected to have the most growth, the top response was health care services, with agribusiness, renewable energy, manufacturing and telecommunications as the top responses. The biggest expected factors in economic success were the availability of skilled workers (73 percent), infrastructure capabilities (56 percent) and job training and apprenticeships (53 percent).

When asked to identify the keys to long-term economic durability, retaining and expanding the workforce was the top priority, getting 65 percent of the responses. Those surveyed also felt strongly about broadening housing options (41.5 percent), economic diversification (39 percent) and supporting business retention and expansion (36 percent).

Respondents were also in general agreement about agricultural topics. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that value-added agriculture was the best route to economic diversification, while 90 percent said production agriculture alone couldn't generate enough wealth to grow the area's economy. Seventy-five percent agreed that identifying sites and approving specific areas for commercial animal feeding operations was a good idea to help rural areas.

"We're only as good as the people we work with," Henderson said. "The CEDS is only limited by how far out we want to reach."

The group is made up of city and county governments in the following counties: Mellette, Lyman, Tripp, Gregory, Buffalo, Brule, Aurora, Jerauld, Sanborn, Davison, Hanson, Charles Mix, Douglas, Hutchinson, Bon Homme and Yankton.