“Never go golfing or fishing on a Friday afternoon. You never know when a prospect might drop by.”
Dick Oldenburg, 69, who retired last week after 25 years of economic development work for Washington, reflected on his experiences.
It was a Friday afternoon when Mr. and Mrs. Jim Hodges walked into his office. It was in the late 1980s and the Hodges said they were looking for a site for expansion of their company, located in the northeastern part of the country. Oldenburg went to work and Hodges Badge Company decided to locate in the Town and Country Industrial Park in a spec building being constructed by the Civic Industrial Corporation. “The Hodges looked all over Missouri for a site. Mrs. Hodges was impressed by work being done to save the old downtown area,” Oldenburg said.
“That led to the construction of a central sewer system, helped by a $350,000 grant from the state, and other industries followed,” he explained. About a dozen companies ended up locating in the Town and Country Industrial Park, which was a Chamber of Commerce development, working with the CIC.
Then came development of the Schulze Industrial Park on Bluff Road, where in time about 160 acres were acquired and more industries came to town or expanded. Twelve industries located there. That was followed by development of the Heidmann Industrial Park, where eight industries located and there is room for more.
During Oldenburg’s tenure, about 30 industries have located or expanded in the three industrial parks. Between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs were created, with an investment of $200 to $300 million. He doesn’t remember exactly how much money he was able to obtain in grants. “Probably several million dollars,” he said.
The most satisfying thing about his job? “Being able to help provide new jobs and saving jobs,” he answered quickly.
After earning bachelor and master degrees, the latter in urban planning, he was hired by Franklin County as an assistant and heir apparent to the late Ulrich Busch, director of planning in 1975. “I learned a lot from Ulrich. It was very good preparation for later becoming the city’s economic development director. I learned about the county and rural Missouri.”
One of the tasks he handled in his 12 years with the county was being coordinator of the $5.5 million new jail project. “That was my first big project. Federal Judge Bill Hungate ordered the county to build a new jail after a lawsuit was filed by inmates, alleging the old jail in the courthouse did not meet constitutional standards. I handled all invoices and change orders.”
He was hired by the city in 1987, under a joint pay arrangement with the Chamber, CIC and city. Steve Reust was mayor and Elmer Heidmann was president of the CIC. A year or so later, the 353 Redevelopment Corporation was organized, with Heidmann also serving as president of that group. Later the city and Chamber handled Oldenburg’s salary.
In looking ahead, Oldenburg emphasized education for workers. “Training is needed beyond high school. We’ve got to train our people. It’s education, education, education.”
He also emphasized that cooperation is necessary between his office, the industrial groups, the Chamber and “last but not least the mayor and city council.” He added: “We’ve had wonderful cooperation from all segments of the community and from the real estate people. The cooperation has been high level all the way.”
Oldenburg said he worked to establish strong relationships with the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, the Missouri Department of Economic Development, Ameren Missouri, Missouri Partnership, and he learned by participating with Leadership St. Louis and Leadership Missouri.
He believes that the future in economic development will be in “advanced manufacturing companies, and small, start-up firms.” But, he added, the best prospects “are in our garden. Our existing industries. I’ve always felt that way.” He is a member of the board of directors of the CIC.
Oldenburg served under five mayors. “All cooperated in economic development.”
Oldenburg is high in his praise of Washington. “It’s a wonderful place to live and raise children. We have it all — education, retail, medical services, excellent job providers, good government, nice residential areas, the riverfront — we are a financial center and socially it’s a great place. I believe some of the Washington natives take our quality of life for granted. If you have lived somewhere else, you appreciate what we have here. Washington has an excellent reputation and that’s due to its people.”
A native of Galena, Ill., Oldenburg went to grade and high school there. He worked in the family grocery store before entering the Army for two years, including service in Germany. After military service, he entered college at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, earning a B.S. degree. He earned his master’s degree at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
His wife Cathie just retired from teaching at Our Lady of Lourdes School. They have three grown sons, Chris and Dan, twins, and Tom, and six grandchildren. “They’ll all be here for the Fair,” Oldenburg said.
In retirement Dick and his wife plan to continue to live here and do some traveling.