As executive director of Brookings Economic Development Corporation since June 2005, Al Heuton has left his mark on the community. Accordingly, as he prepares to retire, kudos are coming his way.
Mayor Keith Corbett will recognize Heuton’s achievements at the Tuesday, Dec. 8, meeting of the Brookings City Council; the mayor will proclaim Wednesday, Dec. 16, “Al Heuton Day”; and that same day, Heuton will attend his last meeting of the BEDC board of directors. Then comes the culmination of a successful career and retirement, following a somewhat circuitous route.
Heuton began life as what he called a “Navy brat,” having been born at Naval Hospital, Oakland, California, in 1955. His father was an enlisted sailor teaching flight simulators for pilots.
When he was 3 years old, his dad left the Navy and returned to Ames, Iowa, where he finished work on an engineering degree at Iowa State University. When Al was 6 years old, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa.
“I did most of my growing up there,” Heuton said. “Right before my senior year in high school, we moved to Storm Lake, Iowa. I graduated from high school there.”
Next stop was Buena Vista College (now a university) in Storm Lake, where he took general courses. “I went for a year and a half and hated every minute of it,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “So I quit and I worked for five years for DeKalb Ag Research in Storm Lake and then went back to college at Iowa State (University) to get my degree in community and regional planning.”
Heuton didn’t initially plan to major in community and regional planning. Following Buena Vista, at ISU he pursued a major in landscape engineering.
“Then I took a couple of urban planning courses and got really interested in that and switched majors.”
To Brookings via Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska
Heuton’s 15 years as BEDC executive director was the capstone of a career in economic development and community planning that began in June 1982 following his graduation from ISU. With his degree in hand – a Bachelor of Science in community and regional planning – he wasted no time in launching his life’s vocation.
He took on the post of assistant community development director in Blue Earth, Minnesota. His duties included: city planning, zoning administration, building inspection and housing rehabilitation. He would be on the job until February 1985.
Heuton would relocate to Ottuma, Iowa, and serve until June 1991 as executive director, Area XV Regional Planning Commission, comprised of 10 counties and 75 cities. While responsible for organization, staff management, planning and budgeting, Heuton gained recognition as an accomplished grant writer and administrator. He secured $1.5 million in funding for and operation of a pair of rural development programs.
In another move within the Midwest, he took over the position of executive director of the Panhandle Area Development District, in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, – 11 counties, about 32 communities – in June 1991. He would stay for 14 years and again gain a reputation as an accomplished executive director, administrator and grant writer. Now it was time for his final career move and the most challenging and rewarding years of his vocation – to Brookings in June 2005.
Getting Bel Brands to Brookings
“I worked on so many different and interesting things that I don’t know if there is a capstone,” Heuton said of his years in Brookings. “The things that I probably enjoyed the most were whatever revolved around entrepreneurship, trying to get our program started, the ability to help small and large businesses.
“That kind of tied in with some of the work with South Dakota State University. All those things were fun to do.”
While Heuton is modest about his role in it, it happened on his watch: the coming to Brooking of the Bel Brands USA $140 million-plus plant that daily manufactures 1.75 million Mini Babybel cheeses. The plant brought more than 275 new jobs to Brookings. The plant joined the Bel family in 2012 and started production in 2014.
“That was a long project,” Heuton said, looking back to the genesis timeline of the project. “I can’t remember all the years now. That project actually started with a lead from the state of South Dakota, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Typically what they do is send out what they call an RFI, request for information, to communities that may be interested in whatever that project is.
“We submitted to that and we were immediately kicked out of the process; because the dairy consulting firm they were working with said we didn’t have enough dairy cows in our area,” Heuton said.
The BEDC did some research and rebutted that argument with one of its own.
“We had research that showed up and down the I-29 corridor we had more dairy cows within a 150-mile radius, from the North Dakota border down into Nebraska and Iowa,” Heuton explained. “That was able to get us back into that project.”
However, he added that Brookings was then “pretty much eliminated one other time because of labor force concerns, labor force availability. We were able to argue around that.”
Heuton remembers all this happening “over a long period of time” and knowing little about the company and its name, other than that “it was a cheese project.”
Smiling, Heuton recalls that when Bel Brands representatives did fly into Brookings, they were put on a BATA bus and given a tour of the community – during an annual clean-up week when people had put out their trash and other unwanted items for pickup.
“We were able to turn that into a positive, showing that Brookings is a clean community because we do things like that,” Heuton said.
“It was a long project, with a lot of back and forth, providing information. A lot of people came together and they wanted to advance things in Brookings.”
No idea Brookings existed
“When I came here, I had no idea it would turn into 15 years,” Heuton said, noting that job expectancy for his profession is four or five years in one place.
“I had no idea Brookings existed before I saw this job ad,” he said. “I knew there was a land-grant university in South Dakota, but I didn’t know anything about it. When I applied for the job, at that time I did my research about what was going on in Brookings in growth and opportunity.
“It looked like a really great place to do this kind of job.”
He found Brookings to “be a fantastic community with so much to offer. Few communities anywhere can hold a candle to what Brookings has to offer.”
By way of structure, the Brookings Economic Development Corporation is a private, nonprofit entity; major financial stakeholders include the city, county, Brookings Health System, Brookings Municipal Utilities, SDSU and some of the smaller outlying communities.
“What makes communities tick and how they grow economically,” is what drives Heuton. “What needs to be in place to be successful is a real passion for getting out and working with businesses and meeting people, finding out what the people want and what they’re interested in.”
In retirement, Al and Sue Heuton will move to the Omaha area. They have four grown children and 10 grandchildren (with an 11th due this month); all of them live in Nebraska.
Heuton has a couple of time-demanding endeavors he’ll continue to pursue in retirement: He builds and flies radio-controlled model airplanes. And he has a patent on a sailboat “that can be car-topped. It’s very transportable.” And somewhat unusual: “You sit in front of the mast and steer with your feet. It’s fun and it really works very well. I just haven’t had the time to create a real marketable version. That’s on my bucket list to finish.”
Contact John Kubal at email@example.com.
COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register