Returning to his rural Iowa hometown, Chris Deal brings tech employment, housing to Jefferson
This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Chris Deal proves you can go home again.
In 2016, Deal, 35, moved back to his hometown of Jefferson, about an hour northwest of Des Moines. Since then, the mechanical engineer and fourth-generation farm boy has spearheaded several development projects in the town of 4,200, bringing everything from housing to Silicon Valley technology companies to a revitalized Main Street.
“Pretty much any significant project we've done, and we've had several of them, he's been a part of in one way or another. He’s an enormous asset,” said Greene County Director of Economic Development Ken Paxton. “We're extremely fortunate to have him in our community.”
Deal grew up on Deal’s Orchard, his parents' 45-acre apple orchard, which has been in the family since his great-grandparents' time. The farm makes and distributes cider, sells pumpkins and Christmas trees and hosts fall activities that attract up to 10,000 people on its busiest weekends.
“If there's one thing you learn, being in the fruit and vegetable industry, especially in Iowa, is that you know how to get your hands dirty," said Deal, one of the Register's People to Watch in 2021. "You know what hard work really is.”
Deal left Jefferson in 2003 to attend Iowa State University in nearby Ames, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical science.
After graduating, Deal spent several years traveling, earning master’s degrees and starting service projects. He lived for a year in Uganda, studying renewable energy at Makerere University. Then, Deal taught math to refugees living in Kansas City.
Deal and his wife, Tracy, moved to Ames in 2011. He began working as a mechanical engineer and then as a principal with MODUS, an Iowa engineering firm. Five years later, with two young children in tow, they decided to move back to Jefferson and the orchard, while he continued to work at MODUS.
“(I) absolutely loved growing up in a small community and the close-knit component of it,” Deal said. “I was always interested in finding a way to come home.”
Spearheading change back home
Like many rural towns in Iowa, Jefferson has struggled in recent years to attract and keep downtown businesses and new residents. The 168-foot tall Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, constructed in 1966 next to the Greene County Courthouse, remains a regional landmark, visible for miles. But it rang out daily over a growing number of vacant downtown buildings. There also was a shortage of new housing.
Even so, Deal said he found a community that in 2016 was on the cusp of major change.
“There were already incredible things happening,” Deal said. “There were renovations happening around the downtown square. There were businesses that had come in — Hy-Vee had come to Jefferson before I moved back.”
Deal quickly set lofty goals for his hometown. He got involved in the effort to build a new Greene County High School, a project that would require the community to vote in favor of a $21 million school bond.
The first two proposals for the new high school did not meet the 60% vote threshold required. But the third proposal — one that included Deal’s plan for a partnership with Iowa Central Community College to create a career academy within the public high school — passed in April 2018 with almost 69% voting yes, the Jefferson Bee Herald reported.
Deal said he was inspired by a 2016 visit he made to the Pella career academy in partnership with DMACC.
“I came back and started asking questions to some of the other community leaders and said, ‘Why don't we have a career academy here? Like, why shouldn’t we try that?’” he said.
He reached out to Iowa Central Community College, floating the idea of building a facility the community college could use. In addition to the $21 million school bond, Deal worked with community leaders to acquire additional funding to build the new high school.
Meanwhile in Des Moines, Deal was working with Pillar Technology, a computer coding company owned by Accenture, on its office space, called The Forge. The company ran several Forges around the country, and executive Linc Kroeger was already scouting ahead for a location in rural Iowa.
Deal proposed Jefferson.
Kroeger was skeptical the town could support the tech education pipeline he wanted to see. But Deal kept coming back, listening to Pillar's needs and working methodically toward meeting them.
“Chris would never debate me. He'd always seek to understand what it is that was really missing, and then go back and actually solve that,” Kroeger said. “He has that tenacity and diligence and perseverance to do that.”
The passage of the school bond paved the way for the Forge. The two programs will work together to shepherd students through coding classes in middle and high school, then training through the career academy and a program at the Forge. At the end of the training, students will have a chance to apply for a job at the Forge, earning a salary of $55,000-$60,000 without taking on any student debt.
The Jefferson Forge opened in September 2019, with politicians from Gov. Kim Reynolds to U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, praising the initiative.
"People shouldn’t have their only choice be to get out of the community that they love," Khanna said.
The new Greene County High School and career academy welcomed its first classes in August 2020.
Big plans for places to live, work, play
Making Jefferson a rural technology hub was just the beginning.
Deal is now involved with several other community projects, all part of a methodical plan to make Jefferson a thriving, desirable place to live.
Much like the Forge project, he leveraged his connections to get Geoff Wood, founder of Gravitate Coworking and a friend of his brother’s, to bring coworking to Jefferson.
Wood plans to open the renovated space next door to the Forge in January. He hopes that coworking is poised to succeed as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and shared office spaces are safe again. That could be especially true in a growing town like Jefferson.
“Jefferson has done such great forward-thinking about the community that they want to be,” Wood said. “So, as they attract new people, they may work remote since we're all doing that, you know, as a world society right now.”
But to sustain families and young professionals moving to town, places to live and play are important too.
Deal is involved with several housing projects around Jefferson, helping to build over two-dozen apartments near Jefferson's downtown.
He noted that “starter” housing is scarce around Jefferson. “And that's common around the entire state, around really the entire nation, in rural communities.”
And then there’s the “three-block project,” the area vacated when the middle school took over the former high school building. The community plans to convert the area into community spaces such as a park and an early learning center and also expand the library.
“How do we make Jefferson a place for people to come?” Deal asked. “Not only can they do whatever they want, but they can actually get unique opportunities … they wouldn't get anywhere else.”
Partners describe Deal as a community leader
Deal hopes that Jefferson can become a model for other rural Iowa communities: a town that embraces new opportunities and attracts new neighbors and businesses.
“Maybe they don't want to live in the middle of the city anymore, or they want a great school district, or they want a community where they can walk to work, walk to the grocery store, ride their bike anywhere in the community, whatever it might be,” he said “We’re really trying to make ourselves more attractive and really continue to set the precedent for rural revitalization.”
He praised the teamwork within the community and its collective willingness to work on big projects.
“There's this fantastic group of leaders, of doers that ranges across generations, from all sorts of backgrounds,” he said. “Everybody collectively rowing in the same direction and trying to do something special to the community — that's what opened doors for us.”
But even the best teams need leaders.
“You get people like Chris, who step up and are willing to take the lead in a lot of these projects and that moves them forward,” Paxton said. “He’s had his hand in everything.”
Nick Sorensen, the former building inspector, zoning enforcement and code enforcer for Jefferson, called Deal a “cheerleader” for the community, motivating progress. And in return, he said, the community has rallied around Deal.
“When the derecho came through," Sorensen said, Jefferson residents flocked to the orchard to help the Deal family pick up windfallen apples "just because of the amount that they help everybody else.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Chris Deal
EDUCATION: Bachelor's in mechanical engineering, Iowa State University, 2008; master's in science, Makerere University, 2011; master's in education, Rockhurst University, 2011.
CAREER: Deal is a principal at MODUS Engineering in Des Moines. He also helps his family run Deal's Orchard while managing community projects around Jefferson.
FAMILY: Wife, Tracy; three children.