PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The governor’s new commissioner of economic development comes with positive recommendations from the Watertown community where he’s lived the past five years.
Chris Schilken has been the state office’s deputy commissioner since April 2021. Before that, he worked as executive director for Watertown Development Company, starting in January 2018.
Governor Kristi Noem announced Thursday afternoon that Schilken will replace Steve Westra, who had served in her cabinet since she took office in January 2019.
Westra was the highest-paid member of her cabinet at $189,952 when he officially left state government on May 22. Schilken’s salary was listed at $127,878.40 as of Thursday evening. On Friday morning, it was posted at $137,469.28.
Brad Johnson, a Watertown real-estate appraiser, told KELOLAND News he considers Schilken “very capable” and described him as “probably Noem’s best pick.”
“When he came to Watertown, our downtown was dying,” Johnson said. Schilken helped expand the focus of Watertown Development Company from primarily industrial to also address housing needs. Five new apartment buildings went up downtown and three more elsewhere. “In the short time he was here, he did a lot of good stuff,” Johnson said.
Schilken’s appointment will need confirmation from the South Dakota Senate when lawmakers return in January for the 2024 session. KELOLAND News asked several legislators from the Watertown area about him Thursday evening. Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck indicated that some lawmakers might welcome a new face.
“It will be an interesting confirmation hearing,” Schoenbeck said in an email. Asked in what way, he responded, “Just say’n.”
Schilken is a 2005 graduate of Minot State University with a bachelor of science degree in management and business administration. He worked from 2008 to 2013 as executive director at Forward Devils Lake and 2013 to 2018 as a loan manager at Prairie Federal Credit Union in Minot, North Dakota.
Regarding his time at Forward Devils Lake, Schilken’s LinkedIn page said, “I earned a reputation as an SME (subject matter expert) for turnaround around projects after transforming the economic growth efforts of a failing community and devising a strategic roadmap to drive $70MM in new construction to the city in less than 4-years, igniting tremendous revenue growth and job creation.”
As for his credit union experience, his LinkedIn entry said, “In this role, I managed and oversaw a $110M loan portfolio, guiding and mentoring a team of 6 professionals to increase loans in order to scale the organization and realize the achievement of set objectives. I developed a deep understanding of finance in this role, gaining the expertise and knowledge in finance, banking, and economics to prepare for future large-scale roles in economic development.”
Schilken arrived in Watertown during a time of uncertainty. Watertown Development Company had lost its long-time executive director, Craig Atkins, who died in 2017. Schilken spent the next three years at the development company and accepted the deputy commissioner offer.
According to his LinkedIn page about his time at WDC, “I served as a turnaround champion, leading a team of 20 directors and 3 direct reports to reinvigorate the city, identifying opportunities for capital investment through housing and economic development, in addition to working with strategic businesses and developing plans to retain their citizenship.”
Among the accomplishments he listed in the Watertown post: “I propelled the improvement in the economic posture of the city by designing and leading a $70MM project to revitalize the downtown area. As a result, I secured developers and built mixed-use buildings, filling the 20 open buildings and advancing tax revenue, employment opportunities, and the city’s economic stability. Additionally, the organization realized a 38% increase in building permits, consisting of over $254MM during my tenure.”
One of the things that happened during Schilken’s time with Watertown Development Company was that a new industrial park in the community in May 2019 was named in honor of John Calvin, who had moved his business operations to Watertown from Minnesota in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Calvin later served nine months as the state’s first secretary of tourism and economic development in Governor Mike Rounds’ administration. Calvin died December 18, 2019.
Schilken hasn’t yet responded to a KELOLAND News question about what he plans to emphasize as GOED commissioner.