New GOED Commissioner Tells Lawmakers State’s Economy Rose Nearly 3 Percent

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Former lawmaker Steve Westra outlined his new role as state commissioner of economic development to the Legislature’s budget panel Thursday.

He said South Dakota’s gross domestic product reached nearly $50 billion in 2018, an increase of just under three percent.

The Republican from Sioux Falls was one of the first Cabinet members that Governor Kristi Noem announced after winning the November election.

Westra told House and Senate members of the Joint Committee on Appropriations that Governor Noem wants his office to find “the next big thing” for South Dakota’s economy.

Westra said he plans to focus on possibilities such as aquaculture, cyber-security, trusts and financial services, precision agriculture, biotechnology, value-added agriculture and advanced manufacturing.

“It’s not that we’re not touching those already, but we’re going to determine really where our new focus is going to be here going forward,” Westra said.

The new governor wants Westra’s agency to have a new website running by the end of February.

“And we look forward to making it clear to people that are looking at the state of South Dakota that they fully understand we are open for business,” Westra said.

He said the governor in her State of the State speech January 8 talked about particular areas of South Dakota that problems with Internet service. 

“Our goal will be closing that broadband gap,” Westra said. “Working with public-private partnerships throughout the state, our goal will be to bring broadband to the rural areas.”

Workforce shortage and workforce housing issues will get attention too, he said.

Governor Noem issued an executive order Monday rearranging some parts of state government. One moves the Value Added Finance Authority to GOED from the state Department of Agriculture. The authority arranges financing to agriculture-related projects.

“In the past I would say there actually was a lot of good collaboration that was going on, but right now it’s going to be simplified with having everything under one roof. We’re excited to have them over there,” Westra said.

Democratic Representative Michael Saba of Hartford asked Westra whether he intends to make international marketing trips, such as Dennis Daugaard led to China while governor.

“International is very important to us because of the agricultural community,” Westra replied.

He added, “At this time we do not have anything on the calendar, but I can assure you, being on the job in less than two weeks, we will be prioritizing that and getting those objectives and getting that calendar scheduled as quickly as we can. 

“One of the things we’re focused on right now more than anything is making sure we’re following the goals and objectives that have been set out by the governor in the short term, as well as filling the open vacancies that we have within the department right now.

“Once that is completed we will continue to work on our strategic plan of action and we’ll look forward to talking more with you on that in the future to identify what those trips might be,” Westra said.

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