PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The governor’s current commissioner of economic development faced tough questions from state lawmakers on Monday about the ‘Freedom Works Here‘ advertising campaign.
The spots, which prominently feature Governor Kristi Noem, have run on national television. Noem announced in late April that her then-commissioner of economic development, Steve Westra, would be stepping down on May 22. But before he left, Westra on May 3 signed a $5 million contract with Strategic Media Placement. The governor named Chris Schilken as her commissioner on June 1. The ads started airing later that month.
On Monday, Schilken sat before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and tried to answer questions about the ad campaign. He sometimes didn’t have much to say, turning to his office’s finance director, Travis Dovre, or state Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman instead.
Republican Rep. Mike Derby asked why the Governor’s Office of Economic Development sought financial support from the private sector and communities, promising a list of contacts in return. Derby said he thought the information would have been shared for free.
Schilken said that was no different than past marketing efforts. He said it was a way to keep the campaign going and the state’s 30-some paying partners would get an ever-growing list that now exceeds 7,000 names.
Democratic Rep. Linda Duba asked why the campaign was running out of money. Replied Schilken, “Workforce marketing campaigns, to do it effective, are very expensive to run.” He said the partnerships allowed the campaign to be extended “as long as possible.”
Duba pressed Schilken for an answer about how many people had been hired as a result of the campaign. “To me, that’s an outcome we need to see,” she said.
Dovre, the office’s finance director, said the challenge has traditionally been that not everybody who moves to South Dakota for a job registers with state government. He said “unfortunately” there might never be a way to answer Duba’s question. “Whatever we’re doing with those ads, it’s getting people’s attention,” he said. Secretary Hultman agreed that it was difficult and outlined a variety of ways her department gauges success.
Derby asked about the specifics regarding the campaign. Schilken said $5 million came from the Future Fund that is collected from most South Dakota businesses. Derby asked what else would be spent. Schilken said the office has other marketing contracts in place.
State government’s budget years runs July 1 through June 30. According to Dovre, just over $1 million remained to be spent when the 2024 budget year began. “The plan is evolving how those dollars will be utilized this year,” Dovre said about the dollars carried over. “The dollars are there and we’re looking to deploy them tactically,” he added.
Dovre explained that the Legislature appropriated $1 million a few years ago to spend on recruiting workers to South Dakota. The money was supposed to go to communities, but the campaign wasn’t successful. That’s where the carryover began, according to Dovre.
Republican Rep. Chris Karr asked where the money went. “We’re just trying to track and understand what’s happening,” he said, wondering how GOED would determine whether the Freedom Works Here campaign was a success.
Replied Dovre, “It’s a long game. The long-term results are starting to speak for themselves, now that we’re a few years into it.” He added, “Stay in front of those potential consumers, or they’ll forget about South Dakota and go somewhere else.”
Karr said that he’s been involved in marketing campaigns and always identified a way to determine if they succeeded. He suggested GOED’s staff was smart enough to figure it out.
Republican Sen. Jean Hunhoff, who chairs the committee, said Schilken and the GOED staff should bring more information when they return in January for their office’s budget hearing. “I think you can do that,” she said.