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As Kyle Harfst retires, he looks back fondly at Webster City

Kyle Harfst

Kyle Harfst, who worked for 30 years in higher education in Illinois after leaving his hometown of Webster City, says he will retire at the end of September.

Harfst, the son of Kay and Ken Harfst, graduated from Webster City High School with the class of 1980. He was the identical twin of the late Kent Harfst, who worked with the City of Webster City in various positions his entire working life.

Like his entire family, Harfst strongly believed in the value of higher education and, like many Webster City high school graduates, Harfst began his college career with an Associates of Arts degree from Iowa Central Community College. His 1984 B.S. in marketing is from the University of Northern Iowa. Harfst earned his MBA in 1996, and Ph.D. in 2006, both from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

His dissertation, “Assessing the Impact of Small Business Training on Nascent Entrepreneurs in Illinois” foretold the direction Kyle’s career would follow: Work with entrepreneurs and business owners to improve the local economy in Illinois, through its universities.

Harfst’s first job was as a business counselor in the Small Business Development Center at SIU. From 1994 to 1996, he taught classes there on starting a new business, and helped his clients develop business and financial plans.

Here’s a notable business success story in which he had a role: At SIU’s Small Business Development Center during the 1990s was the company which developed flash-frozen ice cream. Sold under the brand name Dippin’ Dots, it’s made from a process employing liquid nitrogen at extremely cold temperatures. The ice cream comes to the consumer in the form of tiny beads. The first Dippin’ Dots store opened in Lexington Kentucky in 2018. The same company applied its flash-frozen technology to coffee, resulting in “40 Below Joe,” an edible coffee bead that can be eaten cold, like ice cream, or reheated into liquid form.

Another client Harfst worked with — an information technology company — had contracted for its customer service functions with a firm in India. When things didn’t work out, Harfst helped the company bring the work back to southern Illinois.

This is known as “re-shoring.” Although bringing jobs that were “off-shored” over the past 40 years back to the U.S., especially after the supply chain back-ups during the Covid pandemic was a popular idea, Harfst said it’s been elusive.

“In general, this economic development strategy has seen limited success. While the idea of bringing jobs back to the U.S. is noble, it’s quite a bit of work and not all employers are willing to make this effort.”

Harfst was also instrumental in the re-establishment of grape growing and wine making in Southern Illinois. Before Prohibition, Illinois was the fourth leading state in wine making. Harfst worked with the Illinois state Legislature to encourage the return of wineries as a viable business.

He explained: “It had three components: the science of grape-growing; the science of enology (ie. wine-making); and tourism — essentially the promotion of wineries as a destination for visitors.”

The results speak for themselves.

In 1996, Illinois had only eight licensed wineries; today it has 53, and growth continues.

Harfst said, “Our success with wineries opened opportunities for local breweries and distilleries. It all adds up to more tax revenue and more tourism.”

Like his brother Kent, Kyle has always been an avid cyclist. Beginning in 1998, he served as project manager for the development of a network of bicycle trails in southern Illinois. Since then, he’s worked closely with various groups on expanding the trails, which he stresses are used not just for recreation, but as a transportation alternative to cars.

He said during the interview for this story, “I still cycle, but primarily stay on bike paths and cycle four to five times a week. I rode about 15 miles this morning.”

Of growing up in Webster City, Harfst quickly said he has “only fond memories.” While in high school, Harfst coached grade school football and basketball and was employed as a recreation supervisor at Fuller Hall during both years he attended Iowa Central.

“Webster City gave me a solid start in life. Both of my parents were career educators, and everyone in our family knew the value of a good education. It was a safe place to learn about life. I think I knew the value of that, even while it was happening.”

He cited friends he made in Webster City grade schools, who remain friends today, and then paid Iowa Central Community College a high compliment by saying, “the best college instruction I got anywhere was at Iowa Central.”

He called Webster City’s Iowa Central campus “a gem.”

Even as a child, he recalled, he sensed “a high level of civic engagement” in Webster City. He noted that ordinary Webster Citians volunteering in support of Kendall Young Library, Webster City Community Theatre, and Fuller Hall Recreation Center could be expected as a matter of faith due to pride in the community.

He lauded the work of Arts R Alive, a group his late mother Kay was deeply involved with. It has steadfastly worked to put art in public places in Webster City, notably in West Twin Park. Harfst called that “exceptional.”

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