South Dakota asking businesses to help pay for Freedom Works ad campaign

Stu Whitney, South Dakota News Watch
Posted 9/18/23

Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration reached out to economic development groups and major employers across South Dakota last month, asking them to help extend a run of national TV commercials touting her “Freedom Works Here” workforce recruitment campaign.

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South Dakota asking businesses to help pay for Freedom Works ad campaign

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Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration reached out to economic development groups and major employers across South Dakota last month, asking them to help extend a run of national TV commercials touting her “Freedom Works Here” workforce recruitment campaign.

By contributing $10,000, they were told, they would receive perks such as callouts on the “Freedom Works Here” website and social media channels, detailed market research data and two invitations to the Governor’s Pheasant Hunt. 

The biggest incentive, though, was the promise of names and contact information for thousands of prospective employees that Noem and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) said have registered through the workforce campaign’s website.

As of Sept. 14, the “Freedom Works Here” website claimed that 6,501 people have applied to move to South Dakota through the program and that 1,402 were in the final stages of moving to the state, which has an unemployment rate of 1.9% and about 20,000 open jobs.

Economic development groups from the state’s two largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, pledged the $10,000, which will be matched by GOED. But they are still waiting to receive the names and contact information.

“We desperately want to know who these people are,” said Tom Johnson, president and CEO of Elevate Rapid City. “If there are that many people who want to move to South Dakota, we’re convinced that a good chunk of them would enjoy the quality of life in the Black Hills. We definitely have jobs to fill, so we want to access those names right now, like ASAP.” 

Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, confirmed that his group is contributing $10,000 and that he expects to see the contact information soon.

“The indication was that these were names, email addresses and those types of things,” he said. “Once we get that list, we’ll have to cull that down a little and target who we want to reach.”

The “Freedom Works Here” commercials are the centerpiece of a $6.5 million marketing effort putting the governor and state in the spotlight. 

The TV spots show Noem playing roles such as plumber, electrician, welder and dentist to illustrate the need for more workers in South Dakota. GOED also teamed with Live Fast Motorsports to use the governor’s likeness in sponsoring a NASCAR stock car.

The advertising push, which included a commercial during the Republican presidential debate Aug. 23 on Fox News, was originally scheduled to run through Labor Day. GOED used Future Fund dollars to enlist the marketing and distribution services of Ohio-based Strategic Media Services and Tennessee-based Designsensory Inc. 

In mid-August, GOED commissioner Chris Schilken sent a proposal to development groups and major employers seeking donations to continue the nationwide ad placement through November for the “most effective workforce campaign we’ve ever conducted.” 

The goal, he said, was to raise $250,000 and match with another $250,000 from GOED. Schilken added that “we are prepared to raise significantly more than that and will match accordingly,” according to the document, which was obtained by News Watch. 

Noem appointed Schilken to replace Steve Westra, who resigned as GOED commissioner in May. His appointment still needs to be confirmed by the South Dakota Senate during the 2024 legislative session. Schilken did not respond to multiple interview requests from News Watch.

Dana Dykhouse, CEO of Sioux Falls-based First Premier Bank, which serves as the bank for the state of South Dakota, said his company is unlikely to contribute to the “Freedom Works Here” campaign.

“It’s kind of unprecedented for a governor to ask for money from businesses to run this type of campaign,” said Dykhouse. “I’ve never heard of it before. If someone wants to do it, more power to them. We’ve kind of gone in a different direction in training our workforce.”

First Premier Bank has been a major investor in Freedom Scholarships and the Build Dakota Scholarship, both of which carry a three-year work requirement in South Dakota for college graduates who receive the grants. The state has also helped fund those scholarships.

In public statements this month, Noem credited the “Freedom Works Here” effort with helping to ease workforce shortages throughout the state, highlighting several South Dakota businesses that have been “able to thrive” because of the program. 

But one company heralded as a success story by Noem’s office said that recent out-of-state hires were largely the result of the company’s own recruitment strategies, not the governor’s campaign.

Demkota Ranch Beef, a meatpacking plant in Aberdeen with about 900 employees, was featured in a Sept. 1 press release from the governor’s office as having “hired 82 workers from out of state in the last six weeks,” followed by a list of states those employees came from.

Mark Stammer, Demkota’s vice president of human resources, was asked by News Watch how many of those new hires came from people filling out applications and submitting contact information through the governor’s recruitment program. 

“None of them did,” he said.

Demkota CEO Adam Bode, who is quoted in a Sept. 8 column by Noem talking about his company’s hiring practices, told News Watch via email that “we have not participated in the governor’s program.”

Stammer said he was contacted by representatives from Noem’s office and the GOED in late August, and they asked him to send information about his company’s influx of new employees.

He told them that Demkota had hired 82 workers from out of state in the previous six weeks and listed some of the states they came from, as well as a quote from Bode. That information ended up in the press release and column from Noem’s office touting businesses that are “loving the results” of the workforce recruitment effort.

Stammer said that it’s possible some of the new employees saw Noem’s commercials, but the hires didn’t come from online applications tied to the campaign. They came from intensive recruitment efforts in major U.S. cities and “word of mouth” among immigrant/refugee workers.  

The company sends representatives to recruit and hand out fliers at sites such as grocery stores and Laundromats, with an occasional hiring event if a region shows promise.

“We have a lot of (workforce) needs, so we get out on the road and work to find these people,” said Stammer, a retired major general in the U.S. Army. “Nobody really wants to move to South Dakota. But there are attractive things such as no state income tax and being a healthy state, and I think the governor is highlighting those things very well.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.