Aaron DeJong got involved with an effort to lure IBM’s technology services delivery center to Dubuque about two years after he began working with the city’s economic development department.

The company is located in downtown Dubuque’s Roshek Building, a nine-story building that was completed in 1932. The building was originally home to Roshek Brothers Department Store. After the department store relocated to a mall, the building was transformed into offices and upgraded again when IBM moved its technology services delivery center to Dubuque. 

“The redevelopment of the Roshek Building is one of the things I’m most proud of during my time in Dubuque,” said DeJong, who last July became Urbandale’s assistant director of economic development. His annual salary is $99,382.

“I was in charge of helping out with the financing of getting that former department store building redeveloped,” DeJong said about the Dubuque project.

Historic and other tax credits were used in helping to finance the $43 million redevelopment of the building, he said. “I learned a lot, quickly, navigating all of the possible financing options.” 

DeJong became Louisville, Colo.’s economic development director in 2012. The city, with about 21,000 residents, is located between Denver and Boulder. 

DeJong and his wife, Marie, were eager to return to Iowa, where both of their extended families live.

We recently caught up with DeJong.

What were some of your big accomplishments in Louisville, Colo.? 

Learning the business retention and recruitment efforts [in the Denver area] and learning about numerous different industries. The Denver metro-area economy is different than the Des Moines metro-area economy. In [Louisville] you could work with many different kinds of industries – aerospace, internet technology are things I learned about at a different level. 

Why return to Iowa? 

We went to Colorado with one kid and came back with three. It was important for us to raise our kids here so they could call themselves Iowans. … Every time we came back [for a visit] we longed to be home. When [the Urbandale] job came open, we decided to apply for it. … It’s great to be back.

What attracted you to the Urbandale job? 

I had watched Urbandale from afar for years and always had been impressed with the things they were doing. Also, I’d known Curtis [Brown, the city’s economic development director and assistant city manager] for a really long time. It was really enticing to be able to work with Curtis.

What does your job in urbandale entail? 

I’m helping with business retention and recruitment efforts. 

Talk about business recruiting, especially now in the climate we are in with the pandemic.

I think for a while there will be very little recruitment occurring. I think our role now will be focused on retention and supporting businesses through this pandemic. We’re trying to make sure, the best that we can, to provide and find resources to the businesses already invested here in Urbandale so that they can come back out of this and be stronger than ever.

What do you like best about economic development? 

I really like being able to meet with business owners and managers and learn from them about how they operate, how they do what they do. It’s exciting to go on a factory tour or to talk with a manager about how they conduct their business, recruit their workers, just do what they do.

What strengths do you bring to the job?

I’ve had a lot of experience working on redevelopment projects, so looking at areas that haven’t seen a lot of reinvestments recently. Also, being able to work with property owners to rethink their properties and help encourage investment. 

Plans are being made to redevelop the southwest corner of 100th Street and Douglas Avenue. What would you tell prospective developers or businesses about that corner?

That location is a great commercial retail location. … The industrial users are going away, and that creates an opportunity to make that location even better. Homemakers [Furniture] is across the street, and this property would lend itself to an operator or project that would strengthen that part of the 100th and Douglas corridor. 

Is the pandemic making your job easier or more difficult?

It’s certainly made it different. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder. It’s making the way we interact with businesses different. Just about everything we’re doing is through virtual meetings. … Economic development is relationship-building, and establishing those relationships and maintaining them is best done face to face. During times like these, it’s hard to build relationships. Everyone is used to looking each other in the eye and shaking their hands, and we’re not able to do that right now. Learning new ways to keep those relationships strong and assist when needed is challenging.

How do you spend your spare time? 

I spend time working in my garage. I like to work with wood and make things out of that. Graham [DeJong’s 9-year-old son] likes to help me with that. Also, I’m addicted to bicycling. Central Iowa is great for that.