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Local economy strong, rebounding from pandemic

FAIRFIELD — Fairfield can boast of a vibrant economy with a positive outlook in many sectors such as housing, child care and manufacturing.

Josh Laraby, executive director of Fairfield Economic Development Association, said there’s good reason to be optimistic about the town’s and the county’s economic prospects. Community leaders identified a lack of affordable housing as a major obstacle to the town’s growth, and developers have made major strides in recent years to remedy that problem.

Laraby noted that $16 million went into new housing in Fairfield from 2015-2020. Another $7 million has been started or is planned for the near future. Laraby said new housing construction is “going incredibly well,” and that Fairfield can still use more of it, both single-family and multifamily dwellings. He said there is demand for rental units and owner-occupied units.

The area will need more housing to accommodate the workers local businesses hope to hire. Laraby said job openings persist across all sectors, in finance, health care, manufacturing, retail and especially hospitality. As of May 2021, Jefferson County had a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, which was about double what it was before the pandemic.

Laraby spoke about how there is increasing interest in people from the cities moving to rural Iowa, including Southeast Iowa. He said that as more people can do their jobs remotely over the internet, the savings from a lower cost of living like rural Iowa can provide are that much more attractive.

“We should make it clear to these remote workers that we have ample housing and infrastructure to welcome them,” Laraby said.

In an effort to promote economic growth in the region, the 10 counties that comprise Indian Hills Community College’s region in Southeast Iowa have come together to form Iowa South. These counties, and their respective economic development partners, have teamed up to promote the area to attract outsiders to move here.

“People feel there is more room to breathe here,” Laraby said. “Real estate agents noticed a spike in inquiries from outside Iowa.”

On the child care front, the city is looking forward to a new Jefferson County Kids Child Care Center on Libertyville Road on the south side of town. The 14,000-square-foot building will boast 188 new child care spaces and will be located on a 3.5-acre site, just west of the Jefferson County Health Center. Laraby said that’s not the only exciting development on the horizon, as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’s child care task force will soon release its recommendations for addressing the state’s child care shortage. Laraby was appointed to serve on that task force.

Several local business owners chimed in about the state of their business and their sector of the economy.

Jefferson County Ciderworks

Jesse Narducci, co-founder of Jefferson County Ciderworks, said his business went through a transition in 2020 when demand for its on-premise services like its bar and restaurant declined in the wake of the pandemic. The business focused on selling cans through retailers such as Hy-Vee. By early 2021, restaurant and bar sales returned nicely, and keg sales are surpassing prior sales. Overall, the business has doubled or tripled sales year over year, even including the pandemic year.

Narducci said the business is largely automated due to the equipment required to manufacture the cider. He said there are some concerns about finding enough employees as the manufacturing side of the business continues to grow.

AERON Lifestyle Technology

Patrick Kosar, CEO and chairman of AERON Lifestyle Technology, said his business has been in the midst of an extraordinary growth spurt during the past five years, and is on track to grow its revenue by 50 percent in 2021 compared to 2020. AERON designs and manufactures a line of fragrance diffusers for the home, car and office.

“We are extremely fortunate to be in a product category that is growing, and that, combined with the wonderful dedication of our talented team, has allowed us to thrive,” Kosar said.

Sky Factory

Sky Factory President Lauren Steingreaber said her company has been busy in 2021, picking up most if not all of the delays it faced in 2020. Steingreaber said the pandemic had a dramatic effect on her business in the first and second quarters of 2020.

“Customers who delayed or postponed their orders have returned, and we’ve had our work cut out for us,” Steingreaber said.

Steingreaber said the pandemic gave the business the opportunity to support the community in a way it never expected.

“At the outset of the surge, in mid-April 2020, when hospitals were short on personal protective equipment, we were able to pivot and produce intubation shields to protect emergency staff during endotracheal intubations at Jefferson County Health Center and other area hospitals as far as Sioux City and even from neighboring Minnesota and Illinois,” Steingreaber said.

Weaton Capital

Nate Weaton, president and chief executive of Weaton Capital, said he is optimistic about what the future holds.

“Beginning in [the first quarter] of this year, coming out of the pandemic, we saw order close rates increase at a rapid pace in all of our businesses, and customer feedback indicates that this will continue,” Weaton said. “As excited as we are about order rates increasing, we continue to face significant challenges in the areas of workforce and supply chain. These challenges are faced within the entire manufacturing community, and we all agree that these initiatives must be solved to continue meeting customer demand.”

Agri-Industrial Plastics

Lori Schaefer-Weaton, president of Agri-Industrial Plastics, said demand for her company’s products has been “incredibly high” post-COVID. She said sales are up 40 percent from last year. She said the economic recovery was swift, beginning in September 2020. The company went from working four days per week to working six.

“It was a crazy, roller coaster ride,” she said. “AIP is fortunate to have such a strong senior leadership team, that did a fantastic job of navigating through the pandemic.”

Schaefer-Weaton said one problem her company faces is a lack of available workers. She said the business has 40 open positions for machine operators.

“It is an incredibly competitive environment for hiring,” Schaefer-Weaton said. “In Fairfield and the surrounding areas, our unemployment rate is low and the demand for workforce is incredibly high. This has resulted in wage wars across all industries, not just manufacturing. We have responded by hiring a full-time recruiter, working with employment agencies, revamping our training and focusing on retention.”

Agri-Industrial Plastics in Fairfield has rebounded well in 2021 after the pandemic hurt the business last year. Company President Lori Schaefer-Weaton said sales are up 40 percent from last year. (Photo submitted)
Hannah Morgan assembles a product for Weaton Capital’s ToolKeepers brand. This product is shipped globally, for use in the field by the U.S. military. (Photo submitted)
Micheal Dugan of Jefferson County Ciderworks is seen working in the company’s manufacturing building. Dugan runs the company’s canning line and aids in the cider making processes. (Photo submitted)
Sky Factory created these aerosol boxes (intubation shields) for area hospitals in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo submitted)