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Lizbeth and Ramon

Lizbeth Lamboy Vega and Ramon De Oleo Perez recently re-located from Puerto Rico to Mitchell County, where De Oleo Perez is working for L.R. Falk Construction. 

A couple from Puerto Rico who relocated to St. Ansgar several months ago say they are hoping others will do the same. 

"Everything is perfect so far," said Ramon De Oleo Perez, who is working in maintenance for L.R. Falk Construction in St. Ansgar. 

"We feel really happy here and we hope more families can come here so they can be like us," said his wife, Lizbeth Lamboy Vega.

The couple came to Mitchell County because  Avance – a Clear Lake-based company that recruits employees from Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017 and is experiencing economic difficulties – offered them a relocation package. 

L.R. Falk, as well as Grain Miller, another St. Ansgar business, sought Avance's recruitment services due to a lack of available workers in North Iowa.  

On July 2 the Mitchell County Board of Supervisors approved giving Avance $7,500 to allow the company to offer its services to all businesses in the county at a reduced rate, with the program to be re-evaluated after one year to see if the funding should continue. 

The vote was 2-1, with supervisors Stan Walk and Barb Francis voting yes. Supervisor Steven Smolik voted no. 

Smolik said his vote against the funding had nothing to do with companies bringing in employees from Puerto Rico through Avance, which he supports. 

He said he simply doesn't think the county should be using taxpayer money for that purpose. 

"Good luck on life," he told De Oleo Perez and Lamboy Vega, who were at the meeting and spoke about their decision to come to Mitchell County. 

Other counties in North Iowa also are being asked to contribute funding to Avance so the  company can offer services at a reduced rate to businesses there. 

Chad Schreck, director of the North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corporation, said the region is experiencing a "workforce crunch."

Anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 positions are unfilled throughout North Iowa, according to Schreck. 

"They (businesses) need that talent pipeline," he said. 

The North Central Iowa Alliance, composed of the economic development corporations serving Cerro Gordo, Mitchell, Franklin, Winnebago, Worth, Hancock and Floyd counties, put forward the idea of financially supporting Avance.  

Most of those counties have expressed support for the proposal or are leaning that way except Floyd County, which rejected it, said Tony Stonecypher, director of the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission.

He said one reason Floyd County officials are against the proposal is the upcoming closing of the Simply Essentials chicken processing plant in Charles City, which will put 500 people out of work beginning in August. 

The county also declined to participate in the Avance program because only two businesses there expressed interest, according to Stonecypher. 

The amount each county in the North Central Iowa Alliance is being asked to pay Avance was determined by the population of that county. 

Schreck said the other counties will not be asked to pay more just because Floyd County is not participating. 

He acknowledged a lot of people will be looking for work once the Simply Essentials plant closes, but they may not have the specific skills that some employers need. 

For example, hospitals are looking for nurses, and Avance can find nurses in Puerto Rico who are interested in leaving the unincorporated U.S. territory and coming to the mainland, according to Schreck. 

Mitchell County Supervisor Barb Francis said the county's unemployment rate is now down to 1.8 percent, and businesses are not locating there because of the lack of available workforce. 

During the July 2 board of supervisors meeting, she read aloud an an e-mail from Ivan Wold of Wold’s Tire and Rim in St Ansgar, who was unable to attend but wanted to express his support for the Avance proposal. 

Wold stated he used to get 10 to 20 applicants for each job opening at his business, but now he is lucky to get one. 

He also stated a lot of the Simply Essentials employees are actually bused in from Waterloo. 

De Oleo Perez is an engineer and Lamboy Vega is a doctor. 

Many people in Puerto Rico -- even professionals like them -- are having trouble finding permanent positions that pay a livable wage, according to Lamboy Vega. 

"The job opportunities are really low," she said, noting many people are "living from check to check."

Lamboy Vega said she and her husband want to start a family and were looking for "a nice place, a safe place." 

She said they've also been enjoying recreational opportunities both in Iowa and Minnesota. 

Lamboy Vega described going to Clear Lake and thinking, "Oh, wow, this place is beautiful." 

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