The Republic of Kosovo is making a pitch for Iowa companies to invest in the young country’s economy. Representatives from Iowa’s sister-state in southeastern Europe were in Norwalk Wednesday to promote a program which includes 1,200 acres of land that will be parceled out to companies willing to build new operations in the country.
The offer builds on a relationship that began when the Iowa National Guard was deployed with NATO peacekeepers, which have remained in the country since it separated from Serbia in 1999. Kosovo later declared independence in 2008, although that has not been recognized by Serbia.
Iowa and Kosovo became sister states in 2013. Delegations travel between the countries to share information on topics ranging from education to law enforcement. Kosovo was the first foreign nation to open a consulate in Iowa in 2016. Now, the relationship is reaching into the business world.
“They’re learning from us,” said Norwalk economic development director, Hollie Zajicek. “We have a lot of colleges involved over there, so the next step really is just growing their economy, building companies and providing jobs.”
Kosovar officials are hoping the offer of free land in what is being called the “Kosovo American Economic City” outside of the city of Gjakova will be a draw for Iowa companies, along with property tax breaks and low labor costs. According to Erolld Belegu, an advisor to prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, the country also has something Iowa lacks: young, unemployed workers.
“Seventy percent of the population is under 35,” Belegu said. “They’re eager to work. A lot of them need jobs and a lot of them need better paid jobs as well.”
For companies struggling to add workers in Iowa, Zajicek said expansion in Europe could be another path for growth. “They don’t have to downsize their companies here,” she said. “They can keep their existing operations and where they need bodies they can build a plant and fulfill the need for jobs in Kosovo and the company’s need to expand.”
Belegu expects exports to Europe to be the focus of many of the companies that populate the country’s new economic zone. Although Kosovo is not a member of the European Union, the country has an arrangement that allows free access to EU markets. But, he said, the country also needs investment in businesses such as information technology, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness.
“We need a lot of development in agriculture because we import a lot of our food,” Belegu said. “There’s no reason why we cannot grow tons of chicken in Kosovo.”
Kosovo is offering the incentives to Iowa businesses first, Belegu said, before they are made available to other American companies.