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Inside Atlantic, a Iowa tech program aimed at keeping talent in rural areas

ATLANTIC — Joseph Vanstrom doesn’t fear globalization.

And it’s not just because he’s a towering former lineman for Iowa State University’s Cyclone football team.

Vanstrom, an instructor at Iowa Western Community College’s Atlantic campus, is leading a first-in-the-world design technology program aimed at keeping talented people in rural areas, a venture buoyed by a $65.2 million grant from Siemens for product lifecycle management software.

Atlantic Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Megan Roberts, left, Iowa Western Community College instructor Joseph Vanstrom and campus director Ann Pross discuss the facility’s design technology program, an innovative venture fueled by a $65.2 million grant from Siemens.

Essentially, the program, which just started days ago with the inaugural class in Atlantic, teaches students to serve as liaisons between engineers and the manufacturing of a final product in many industries, from around the corner to far-flung places on the globe. All the two-year Atlantic program’s graduates will need is a computer and Internet access and they can work from anywhere to earn a competitive salary — something Ann Pross, director of Iowa Western’s Atlantic campus sees as a boon for rural development.

“Education is not driving this program, industry is,” Pross said.

The Atlantic project is a flagship one for Siemens and has drawn the interest of Gov. Terry Branstad and other state leaders.

“These businesses realize they’re not going to get everyone to physically sit in a location,” Vanstrom said.

As it stands, the program has 10 students (some who travel from other Iowa Western locations) with a capacity for 30. Vanstrom sees it growing even bigger at the Atlantic campus.

The trailblazing program is one of a raft of initiatives that this reporter and Carroll Mayor Jim Pedelty encountered during a full-day tour of Atlantic Tuesday that included stops at a number of businesses, industries and organizations, lunch with the Atlantic Rotary Club and discussions with community leaders like Atlantic Mayor David R. Jones.

“Rural America has to be progressive or we’re regressing,” Pross said.

Jones, about two years into his tenure as mayor, was a key leader as a city councilman in the efforts to work in concert with the YMCA to build a new $6 million facility — one that opened in February 2004 and includes a zero-depth-entry pool, generous workout facility with new equipment and an indoor track, among other features.

“It was something that was needed,” said Jones, who worked with the YMCA and local residents as well as Vision Iowa on the project in the center of the city of about 7,200 people.

Further east, Tom Bashaw, general manager of Ziegler CAT, 951 Park Drive, provided a tour of the facility that is close to celebrating its one-year anniversary.

The 15,000-square-foot business has five service bays, a large parts inventory, and hydraulic-hose-building capabilities. It employs 14 people and offers the complete line of new and used agricultural equipment, including Challenger tractors, LEXION combines, RoGators, Spra-Coupes, White Planters, and Sunflower tillage equipment.

Patricia A. Markham, administrator of the Cass County Memorial Hospital, explains a planned $23.5 million renovation-and-expansion project at the critical-access health-care facility that opened 1968. Cass County Memorial is Atlantic’s largest employer with about 350 people on its payroll.

Down the street from the CAT operation, Jay and Jennifer Miller, Atlantic products who recently returned home from Waukee, own Brymons Home Furnishings, 700 Park Drive. (The store is named for their children — Cambry and Damon.)

“We’ve always had an interest to open up our own business, and what’s better than furniture,” Jennifer Miller said.

The 20,000-square-foot facility is celebrating its fifth anniversary and continues to expand its geographic reach for customers.

The Millers are exceptionally pleased with their decision to return to Atlantic.

“The verdict is overwhelmingly positive,” Jennifer Miller said. “It’s a win for us personally and professionally.”

The business employs 10 people, full- and part-time.

A signature community project is the planned $23.5 million renovation-and-expansion project at Cass County Memorial Hospital, a critical-access health-care facility that opened in 1968. Currently the facility has 25 hospital beds, and eight for a behavioral unit. The facility draws 25 outpatient physicians to complement the work of the six family practitioners in Atlantic, said Patricia A. Markham, administrator at Cass County Memorial.

Cass County Memorial, 1501 E. 10th St., is a rural Iowa leader in psychiatry, with two psychiatrists, including one who is degreed with to work both with adults and children, a rarity in the profession, particularly in smaller communities, Markham said.

The expansion-and-improvement project includes a new emergency room and work with the surgery area. There also will be a new inpatient section on the second floor.

Major renovations will occur throughout large swaths of the hospital, including the addition of more oncology department space.

The full project is slated for completion in August 2012. The hospital is Atlantic’s largest employer, listing a payroll with about 350 people.

Megan Roberts, executive director of the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, said there’s a reason the retail community maintains vitality, that main routes like Atlantic’s Chestnut Street are full of cars, and open-for-business storefronts.

“Atlantic has weathered the economic downturn well,” Roberts said. “We have a strong manufacturing base. We also have a lot of smaller family-owned businesses.”

Wendy Schulz, owner of the Sweet Joy Shoppe, serves up some gelato (Italian ice cream).

One of the more innovative businesses is Wendy Schulz’s Sweet Joy Shoppe, 315 Chestnut St., which offers gelato, Italian ice cream that is made with all fresh ingredients. Sweet Joy carries 30 different flavors and showcases seven a day.

Schulz’s two children, Darrin, 17, and Danielle, 16, help mom with the business.

No visit to Atlantic would be complete without a discussion of Coca-Cola. The independent, family-owned Coca-Cola Atlantic Bottling Co. has Tyler family roots stretching back to 1905 in southwest Iowa. The company bottles and distributes Coke products across southwest and central Iowa.

In just weeks, on Sept. 23 and 24, Atlantic will be host to Coca-Cola Days, which attracts visitors from across the United States who are interested in collectibles related to the iconic American drink, explained Dolly Bergmann of rural Atlantic, co-chairman of the volunteer-operated Coca-Cola Museum.

For her part, Roberts, a Clarinda native and graduate of Northwest Missouri State University, is enjoying living in Atlantic with her husband, Adam, a welding fabricator, and their two children.

“In Atlantic there’s a lot of opportunities for young people to be involved at a decision-making level,” Roberts said. “It’s not just a place to live. You can settle in here pretty easily.”

In the future, Roberts said, Atlantic will continue to seek to maximize its proximity between Des Moines (75 miles) and Omaha., Neb. (55 miles). The city is also nine miles from Interstate 80.

“You have an advantage we do not have — it’s your proximity to the Interstate,” Pedelty said.

Pedelty, a member of the Carroll Area Development Corp., which works on regional economic endeavors, said there’s much potential for Atlantic and Carroll to cooperate.

“We are tied together,” Pedelty said. “We are connected.”

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