Le Mars, Iowa
The Ice Cream Capital of the World, and so Much More
Discover the delights of a small city “Where Life is Sweet”
With the tagline “Where Life is Sweet,” it’s hardly possible to talk about the city of Le Mars without mentioning ice cream, especially since the community has been home to Wells Enterprises since its founding in 1913. For over a century, the company has been manufacturing its deliciously renowned Blue Bunny brand dairy products at its facility in Le Mars, where more ice cream is produced daily by a single company than anywhere else in the world. This legacy is not only a point of pride for the city but also a driving force for economic growth.
Nestled in Plymouth County, in the northwest corner of the state, Le Mars is a progressive community with much to offer, from the quality of life to economic development opportunities. With ongoing tourism initiatives and expansions in both the industrial and housing sectors, the city of 10,571 people is moving forward with purpose and intent.
Recreation and Outdoor Charm
Le Mars offers a range of recreational amenities, including 11 miles of trails, bordering the north and west boundaries. Plans for the Plywood Trail, named after the counties of Plymouth and Woodbury, will connect Le Mars to the communities of Merrill, Hinton, and Sioux City, parallel to Highway 75. “Once complete, I believe the end result will be nearly 100 miles of trail interconnected,” relays Community Development Director Mark Gaul.
The city also boasts a variety of indoor and outdoor opportunities, including a pool, an aquatic center, a YMCA, a Little League program, and pickleball courts. Le Mars Municipal Park is home to Willow Creek Campground, where campers can enjoy park facilities including a swimming beach and a 3.6-acre spring-fed fishing pond. The campground is located next to the Willow Creek Golf Course, one of two 27-hole courses in the state.
Industrial Parks and Collaborations
With three additions over the years, Le Mars Industrial Park is the location of Wells Enterprises, which employs 2,700 people and is the main employer in the city. “There’s a lot of synergy in our industrial park of support businesses for our largest employer,” says Gaul, naming BoDeans part of the Joy Baking group, IML plastic containers, and Schuster Trucking as examples.
He emphasizes the strong rail infrastructure in the business park, which is heavily used, sharing that to enhance these rail capabilities the city is engineering an additional switch on its own rail system, connecting to the CP (Canadian National) and Burlington main lines.
Future development is in the plans, as Gaul recounts, “The city recently purchased an additional 230 acres directly south of our industrial park, and we’re opening up the first phase of that for our larger industrial businesses. That’ll be Le Mars Industrial Park’s fourth edition.” He explains that phase one involves the development of 30 acres, while a master plan will guide the plans for the remaining land.
“Along with that, across the road to the west, we’re developing another 28-acre industrial park for half an acre to acre size lots for smaller trade businesses or unique commercial startup type businesses,” he adds.
“What we find is that a lot of our larger industries were birthed from a small business. So, we want to make sure that we provide the right type of environment to where they can get started.”
He shares some of the diverse small businesses in the park, including a CNC shop specializing in custom work for local businesses and farmers. Another unique addition is “The Pet Parlor,” a dog kennel and daycare facility. He acknowledges that although this is unconventional for an industrial park, it is an ideal location. “A dog kennel or dog daycare really doesn’t fit a commercial area because dogs make noise. And if they’re going to be boarding dogs and giving dog daycare, which is an up-and-coming thing, they need to be in a unique area.”
Attracting Development and Increased Housing Inventory
While the goal is to maintain the small-town charm of the community, Jason Vacura, City Administrator, highlights the need for all levels of housing in Le Mars. “We’ve had incentives in place for years to help spur construction of single-family homes and multifamily apartment buildings,” he shares.
“We went through a stagnant period where we saw no new residential subdivisions being platted, and we initiated these tax incentives which slowly brought those developers to us.” With multi-family apartment buildings bringing 100 new units to the city in recent years, Vacura says that was just a small dent in the need, noting, “As soon as they came online, they were filled with waiting lists.” Partnering with the Le Mars Business Initiative Corporation, the city is hoping to attract more multi-family and entry-level housing development.
Gaul expands on the efforts, emphasizing the city’s proactive approach. He says, “Recognizing that we need more scale, we went through a community development planning process, and we’re trying to do some new and different things with our local development corporation.”
These efforts include acquiring land for development and targeting underutilized areas. Gaul offers the example of a four-and-a-half-acre property with 27 dilapidated units, where the aim is to attract a developer to build over 100 new units. He describes another project involving a 35-acre parcel where a developer plans to create modular housing priced under $175,000, catering to workforce housing needs.
Along with that, the city has identified areas of the community suited to specific types of housing, from single-family homes to medium-density townhome complexes, multi-family apartment buildings, and 55+ accommodations. “Now that we’ve identified those areas where we want to develop in the future, we have developers that have expressed interest in doing that,” Gaul portrays.
“Through our planning process, we found that there are at least 4,200 people on a daily basis driving into Le Mars to work. And we don’t have 25 housing units available for sale or rent right now. So, our thought is, if we get scale in housing, we can continue to attract those workers that are already coming here and provide opportunities for new workers as the industry continues to create jobs.”
Downtown Revitalization and Community Engagement
Le Mars is dedicated to the revitalization of its downtown area, adopting a community development plan known as Vision 2045, and aspiring to create a lively hub for tourism. “Downtown development with upper-story housing is a big key to that. We’ve had a local developer invest heavily in a number of our downtown buildings to renovate them, and to create some upper-story housing where people want to live,” remarks Gaul.
“Tourism is also a big portion of that because we have the Wells Ice Cream Parlor and Visitor Center. That is one of the top tourist attractions in the state of Iowa. It brings in excess of 350,000 people to our community on an annual basis.”
The vision includes providing visitors with distinctive shopping experiences, and entertainment at Browns Century Theater, along with a diverse calendar of events, including the renowned Ice Cream Days, the Plymouth County Fair, Hometown Christmas celebrations, and vibrant parades.
“What we’re going to do with our downtown is try to create that destination where not only can you go to the unique niche shops, but where folks can come and enjoy the tourism experiences and then have opportunities to dine, shop, and just spend time downtown,” he portrays.
Partnership and Collaboration
Recognizing the importance of small businesses, Le Mars supports its entrepreneurs in collaboration with Plymouth County and the neighboring counties of Woodbury and Monona through projects like the Iowa West Coast initiative, which provides entrepreneurial support and programming. Additionally, the city partners with Northwest Iowa Developers, a group comprising economic developers from Sioux, Lyon, O’Brien, and Osceola counties, aiming to collectively market the region for economic development.
As for other valuable relationships, Le Mars is working in partnership with the Plywood Executive Committee. “They’re the nonprofit to make sure that the Plywood Trail is constructed. Sioux City is also doing that, working from the south and coming up,” Vacura describes, noting that Le Mars also maintains strong partnerships with the local Chamber of Commerce and the Development Corporation.
Investing in Infrastructure for a Vibrant Future
Looking ahead, Le Mars is making substantial investments in infrastructure, including the reconstruction of the municipal airport runway in 2022, with future plans at the airport including new taxiways, apron expansion and reconstruction, and new lighting. “It is vital to the industries in town, so it’s important that we keep it up and in good condition. We’ve got plans for the next seven to eight years out there, and each year we knock something new out,” Vacura says. In other infrastructure projects, Le Mars is upgrading water and wastewater facilities in alignment with the city’s vision for continued growth and economic prosperity.
As Le Mars charts its course into 2024 and beyond, the city exemplifies thoughtful planning, collaboration, and a clear community vision. Not just the Ice Cream Capital, but a community with a dynamic future, poised for sustainable growth and prosperity.
AT A GLANCE
Le Mars, Iowa
What: A community of 10, 500 poised for continued growth.
Where: Plymouth County, Iowa