America's Next Boom Town: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Forget about man camps. Mayor Mike Huether wants you to know that North Dakota isn't the only state boasting low unemployment and a growing population.
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Most U.S. mayors would give their right arms for Mike Huether's problems. The 50-year-old Democratic mayor of Sioux Falls runs a city blessed with consistently low unemployment--the current rate is 3.5 percent--multiple thriving industries, and few of the woes that plague larger urban areas. A former executive who spent 15 years with Citibank, one of South Dakota's largest employers, Huether oversees city coffers that keep growing, thanks to economic prosperity in the region and a population boom. The downside? Managing the city's growth to provide for all those new residents, and making sure that low unemployment rates don't scare away employers who worry they can't fill positions.

Huether recently sat down to talk with National Journal's Amy Sullivan in his downtown office. Edited excerpts follow.

This is my first time back in Sioux Falls in more than a decade. The last time I was here, Citibank was really the only game in town. What's happened to the city's economic base since then?

You're right. I graduated in 1984 from South Dakota State University, and at that time, the opportunities were limited, except for this new business in town. That was one of the biggest wins for the city. This town was built on agriculture, and it's still a big part of why we're successful. But then we got into banking--with Citibank, First Premier, Wells Bank, Capital One. We also became a retail and, yes, even tourism, mecca for this region; that includes things like conventions and conferences. Then you add the other leg that really had a strong role during the recession, and that was health care.

We're going to find the cure for breast cancer in Sioux Falls, and for Type 1 diabetes. We are setting up labs and testing environments and other innovations in health care. They're not screwing around. Companies like Sanford and Avera are sincerely passionate about doing that work in Sioux Falls instead of at Mayo or on the East Coast. That fourth leg really helped catapult us during the recession, because they were investing in research, investing in facilities and people during that time. Even though banking was struggling and retail was down, ag and health care were going gangbusters.

It sounds boring, but it's very effective to create more legs on your economic development stool. We do it extremely well here.

How important was it to have Citi's presence and the reputation as a financial-services sector to bring other companies here?

Citibank taught us how to think big. It was an incredible training ground for so many young executives and future leaders, including myself. I started there in 1984 and worked there until 1999, spending five years in South Dakota, five in New York, five in Texas. Then I went to Europe and then came back to South Dakota to work at Premier Bank with Denny Sanford. I quit in 2009 to pursue my dream to be in public service.

Citibank taught us we could play with the big boys, and to be proud in South Dakota instead of being looked on as second-class citizens in the Midwest. I'll never forget being at Citibank and having these East Coast people from elite colleges who were reporting to this South Dakota boy from South Dakota State. We had folks from the East Coast who "had" to move to Sioux Falls, and once they got here, they were going, "why in the world didn't we come earlier?"

Looking at your unemployment numbers, with the exception of a brief spike in 2010 when the rate went up to 6 percent, it's surprising that more people don't move here.

I was just in Wisconsin, where some friends were talking about 9 percent unemployment, and I can't fathom that. Here in Sioux Falls, if we're over 5, 5.5 percent, we're wondering what we're doing wrong. Right now we're at 3.5, and actually struggling with that. It's a good thing if you need a job, but something to look out for if you're trying to hire people.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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