A rural community just outside the orbit of St. Louis, Iron County was negatively impacted by the breach of the Taum Sauk Reservoir in December 2005. Despite receiving settlement monies in 2011, County leaders struggled to implement a coordinated response to the area’s challenges which included stagnant population trends, low labor force participation rates, dependence on a declining industry sector (iron and lead mining), and a rash of business closures and lingering job losses associated with the Great Recession (2007-2009). Efforts to reinvigorate the economy were also hampered by the County’s relatively large percentage of non-taxable land; roughly one-third of the County’s lands are federal or state-owned.
Charged with improving the quality of life of people adversely impacted by the dam breach, the Iron County Economic Partnership (ICEP) provides grant funding from the Taum Sauk settlement monies for economic development and tourism development projects. To help guide these investments and ensure the greatest impact on the County’s future economic health, the five-member ICEP board (comprised of representatives from each of the county’s largest communities), engaged TIP Strategies to prepare a long-term economic development plan. The resulting Invest in Iron County strategy was organized around five areas (business development, marketing, tourism, entrepreneurship, and talent and workforce) and provided organizational and operational recommendations, as well as an implementation matrix. Strategies centered on connecting the County to the investment and visitor potential of the St. Louis metro area and beyond by leveraging its forested mountain beauty, recreational opportunities, and historical destinations via effective use of the Taum Sauk Fund and an investor focused marketing effort (“Invest in Iron”). Among the plan’s priority projects was attracting new products aligned with County’s strengths, such as a resort lodge, destination restaurant, or extreme sports park. Since the plan was adopted in 2014, the County has helped fund the first phase of an ambitious mountain bike park. Officially opened in April 2021, Shepherd Mountain Bike Park has already been a great success, driving up property values around the park and earning a spot as the season opener for one of the nation’s premier mountain bike racing events. A second phase of the park is planned that will focus on family-oriented bike trails and amenities.