John McRae put a conspicuous feather in David Toland’s and Thrive Allen County’s hat Thursday during a presentation to Iola Rotary.
“Competition is incredible” for jobs today, said McRae, president of Iola Industries. The economic development effort to attract new jobs has kept pace, McRae said, because of the Allen County Economic Development Committee which Thrive has adopted into its mission.
McRae pointed out that about 25 jobs were saved in Allen County when the old Haldex plant was selected as a manufacturing site for Catalyst, formerly 2R Tool in Humboldt. Also, Catalyst is committed to adding 100 new jobs with its move to Iola.
“David (Toland) and Thrive helped a lot with that and kept the jobs here, rather than having them go to Texas,” where Catalyst is headquartered, McRae said.
Toland is no Johnny-come-lately. He spent more than five years in economic development efforts in Washington, D.C., after having been appointed chief of staff of the group by the mayor.
IOLA INDUSTRIES was formed in 1955 by Iola business and professional people, with the goal of promoting Iola and tending to its economic development needs.
Since then the Iola Industries board has had just three directors: Dr. A. R. Chambers from the start until 1969; Emerson Lynn — “during our epic period,” McRae said, when Gates Corporation, Midland Brake, Herff Jones and Tramec came to town — through 2003; and Mary Kay Heard since.
“We have had many successes and some failures, and Iola Industries is healthy today with assets of nearly $1 million, with most of that in land,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of cash on hand.”
The development group got its start as a for-profit and sold shares, limited to 10 per buyer for $10 each. Today there are about 2,300 shares outstanding held by 160 people. That does not square with the 10 shares per owner limit because inheritances and other occurrences have increased some owners’ stock numbers.
A dividend never has been paid on the stock, but virtually every industry in Iola is testimony to Iola Industries’ successes.
Stock still is sold, but buyers aren’t solicited.
“You have to come to us,” McRae said.
“The board of directors through the years has been like a who’s who in Iola,” he added, and mentioned several who have made noteworthy contributions.
Ray Pershall was one. He served Iola as mayor and city commissioner, and often was at the forefront of development efforts, McRae said.
“He was in the middle of everything and never met an open meetings law he liked,” McRae joked, but, in a serious tone, allowed that no one had a bigger heart for Iola than Pershall or cared more about the city.
THE FIRST Iola Industries project was cleanup of the old Thompson Poultry site and adjoining land on the east side of Iola.
While most of the group’s assets are fixed, advantage is the assets provide collateral that permits it to acquire loans to help with a multitude of developments, although “primarily we try to make land available,” McRae said.
He noted that when Russell Stover Candies was being wooed, Iola Industries sold 60 acres — part of which holds the plant today — to Iola for $1 to facilitate recruitment and eventual location.
Another factor in Russell Stover coming to Iola was what once was called the “road to nowhere.”
“That’s what someone in a letter to the Register called the concrete road” that gives upscale access to the candy plant, McRae pointed out, and that Pershall, then mayor, promoted the road’s construction as a precursor of development.
“We wouldn’t have the plant without the concrete road,” he said.
“It made me look good,” McRae said, with him being mayor when the candy plant was announced.
“Ray was my mentor,” McRae added.
Preaching a bit to the choir, he said good quality housing was a concern for the Iolas of the nation.
“When I came here 30 years ago, Iola’s population was 7,500 and it’s what today, 5,800? That’s a problem that afflicts all rural communities; everyone is losing population,” with unavailability of housing a primary culprit.
Did you know,” McRae asked, “there are more jobs in Allen County than people,” meaning many workers drive here from out of county, in part because they can’t find suitable housing.
“That’s why Iola Industries has looked into housing development,” he said, noting that the loss of the senior living complex on North Kentucky Street stung. The assumption was it would open good quality housing when older folks chose the comfort of assisted living. The loss hurt even more when the developer was received in Chanute with open arms and announced a $3.8 million project.
“I don’t think you’ll be seeing a lot of big industries anymore,” McRae said, in part because in today’s high-tech world it takes just five workers to accomplish what it took 17 a few years ago.
“Iola Industries will go where our focus needs to be,” he continued, with housing, small industries or even health care.
“Everyone may not remember that we built the clinic next to the old hospital,” McRae observed. “Some board members wondered if it was the right thing to do, but it turned out well. Now, we may cooperate to build a clinic next to the new hospital.”
Or, Iola Industries’ next major thrust may be in the housing market — whatever board members think is good for Iola.