She stands only 5-foot-1, but what LaVon Schiltz has lacked in height, she’s made up with in tenacity.
After 20-plus years of pounding the pavement to bring business and industry to Nevada, Schiltz retired this week as the community’s executive director of the Nevada Economic Development Council (NEDC).
“I’m going to miss the involvement and the challenges,” said Schiltz, 74, who took the position in Nevada in the mid-1990s to be closer to her husband, Gary, who was living in Story County because he worked at the Iowa Department of Transportation. She was up north, leading the chamber and economic development in Charles City at the time, so the opportunity to come to Nevada brought the couple back together.
But it was more than just being with her husband that enticed her about the job. “There was so much potential here,” she said, “and what added to that (potential) was the proximity (of Nevada) to Des Moines and to Iowa State University. Nevada was a clean-looking town that could attract people.”
Schiltz started out working as the leader of both the Chamber of Commerce and the NEDC, but after a few years, she and others committed to the town’s economic development determined it would be best to have each entity work separately and with their own leader. “Economic development was what I really wanted to do,” Schiltz said, and she loved being able to devote her time to just that. To do economic development right meant she needed time to get out of Nevada and go to conferences and business events, where she could market Nevada to the right people. Her travels to many places eventually brought a number of companies back to Nevada.
When asked if she knows how many businesses she actually brought to Nevada over the course of nearly 25 years, she isn’t sure, she said. She had to write something up once for her board of directors and outline all of that. But she doesn’t need to list it all out for recognition purposes; she’d rather share some of her memories from her years here.
“I remember working with Jim Christy when Lincolnway Energy was being started,” she said. The late Christy was mayor at the time. “The whole farm community was interested in that. It was a homemade company and a lot of good people invested in it. And Jim, what a salesman for Nevada he was.”
She thinks back to all the space that used to exist in the West Industrial Park.
“When I first came here, the NEDC had brought some property along Airport Road, but there was only one company out there, Printgraphics (formerly Graphic Forms). So we started to recruit out there. Priority Envelope happened because we (herself and others representing Nevada) went to the Twin Cities (where the company headquarters were) and called on that company.” Priority Envelope was sold on Nevada, and “now, they’ve doubled in size.” Schiltz said.
A lot more businesses followed into the West Industrial Park. But Schiltz worked to help the east side of town as well.
Again, Christy was important in helping the NEDC buy the land where the East Business Park is. That land was owned by Harold Fawcett. “I remember Jim and I going to see Harold, with his big rolltop desk. I sat down and started to explain to him why we needed the land.” She said the main thing that convinced Fawcett to sell to the NEDC was the possibility of losing the Justice Center to Ames.
The money to buy the land from Fawcett — there’s another interesting story behind that, and it goes back to when Donnelley Marketing closed in Nevada.
“I went to their (Donnelley’s) head people and said, ‘What are you going to do with that big building?’ I asked them to donate that and the building they owned on main street to the NEDC.” And by golly, they did.
“We (the NEDC) turned the building uptown into an incubator for businesses that needed a place to start while they hopefully built in our industrial park,” she said.
They also used part of the bigger Donnelley building as warehouse space. “Ball in Ames needed warehouse space, so we leased the big open part of that main building to Ball, and their rent paid for our taxes, insurance and upkeep.”
Eventually, when GFS needed a bigger building, the NEDC was able to make a deal with them, basically trading them their smaller, more marketable building along 11th Street for the big Donnelley building. And the NEDC turned around and sold the smaller building to Burke Corporation. “That money from Burke,” she said, “that’s how we bought the land from Fawcett. It was just dumb luck.”
While luck may have some part of economic development, a lot of it is knowing how to work with people and make deals that make sense and aren’t broadcast publicly until they are done. Schiltz has been adamant about the importance of keeping the confidence of those she’s working with, and she’s demanded that of her board members as well.
“So much has to be kept confidential,” she said. That’s because, she explained, businesses don’t want every other business to know what they’re going to do, and usually a community doesn’t want other communities knowing who might be interested in coming to Nevada, because you don’t want another community to swoop in and take them.
The highly secretive nature of her job and the fact that sometimes businesses were being looked at that not everyone liked, have put her into the middle of a few firestorms in her day. When asked about some of those moments, she shrugs and smiles, “I try to forget about some things. That’s old history; I don’t even think about it.”
Overall, Schiltz said, Nevada has been very receptive to growth. She feels good about the companies that have chosen to locate in Nevada. She has loved the challenges involved with getting them here.
As for DuPont, she said it’s unfortunate how it turned out, but she doesn’t regret bringing them to Nevada. It was planned to bring jobs to Nevada and be a place for farmers to sell stover. “I’d absolutely do it again,” she said. And she’s feeling very positive about the facility that remains at the west edge of Nevada. “It’s very marketable; someone is going to buy it.”
Schiltz officially finished her job yesterday (Feb. 28), but she said she will still be happy to help out with anything needed until a transition to new leadership is found. She and Gary, also retired, have lived in Nevada longer than they’ve ever lived anywhere else, and at this point in time, they plan to stay.
“I’ve never considered myself a senior citizen yet, but I have friends who tell me I’d enjoy the senior center, so I might have to check that out.”