EYOTA — Jennifer Lawver isn't your average businesswoman.
"I’m a crazy, balls-to-the-wall girl," she says.
A Realtor whose education background includes interior design and all the licensing needed to be a certified financial planner, Lawver is more at home in heavy, earth-moving equipment, pulling the levers on her excavator or riding high over the giant tires of a dump truck.
It's a passion that has led her to become a property developer, and one of the women leading the way in building in Eyota.
Having grown up on a farm between Stewartville and Chatfield, Lawver always felt comfortable in machines that ran on diesel fuel, but she really didn't utilize her skills until she met her husband, Tobin Lawver, in 2004 and began working construction with him.
"We were building spec homes, and he realized very quickly I had a natural knack for operating heavy equipment," Lawver said.
While Lawver went to school, she learned to work the heavy equipment, and eventually she and her husband focused their business on excavation work, digging basements for one particular builder in Rochester. They kept that job for a while, buying more equipment and digging more basements until, with $100,000 left to pay off their earth-moving vehicles, they lost the job and needed a new path.
They bought a piece of residential land off East Circle Drive in Rochester to develop, another rural residential piece of land about a mile east of Century High School. Their latest project will start this summer with 20 residential lots on 40 acres next to the Summerfield subdivision in the northeast part of Eyota.
Those 20 lots, ranging from 0.21 acres to 0.69 acres have all been reserved and sold before the sewer and roads are even in place, Lawver said. They should be ready for builders to start constructing later this summer so families can be warm and cozy by Christmas.
Lawver said losing the basement excavating job was a "big knife in the back" that motivated her and Tobin to go from digging for someone else's projects to creating their own projects that can help towns grow, help families find their dream place to live.
"Eyota was super thrilled when I said I’d come in and develop that land, and leave it open to builders," Lawver said, adding that most developers work with a specific builder to put up homes. "People should work with who they feel comfortable with."
Marlis and her lists
One person who Lawver said made her job easier in Eyota is longtime City Clerk Marlis Knowlton.
"She is the person who runs that town," Lawver said. "When I come into a town, I always try to find the go-to person."
Knowlton deflects credit, saying simply that when it comes to helping people navigate the ever-changing government regulations that rule the world of property development, "that's my job."
But her job means making it easier when people want to build and invest in the community.
"She knows what she’s doing," said Vicki Arendt, who is near the end of a project to build four three-unit townhomes near Eyota Market, the grocery store she used to run before her family sold it. "She told me what to fill out and turn in. She's got a nice list for us to go off of."
Giving property owners a step-by-step guide to projects means no matter who comes into City Hall, they knew what they're up against, Knowlton said.
"But trust me, I didn't dream all these up," she said. "There's specific things that need to be done when you're doing a development or a building permit application."
Bringing big business
Knowlton said everyone benefits from growth. When there are more taxpayers – and if you can add manufacturing businesses – you lessen the tax burden for homeowners.
"Eyota has always been considered a bedroom community," Knowlton said. "To get any more businesses, commercial or industrial, takes some of the tax burden off Grandma Vera who lives on Fourth Street."
One big development coming to Eyota is a new Menards nail plant that has moved from the township into the city. The project has taken everything from grants to a tax-increment finance district to make the money math work, said Cathy Enerson, the city's economic development director, who is contracted to the city through Community and Economic Development Associates.
"The most important thing for me is, I want to build the tax base for residents, put the land to best use," Enerson said.
That means getting landowners – some of whom have property that's not listed for sale – connected with developers. She connected Menards with the owner of the farmland that will become the site of a 20-employee manufacturing facility. And she connected Lawver with the owner of the land that she's turning into a subdivision.
Caring for the community
But Enerson credits the developers who want to do the hard work, investing time and money into their communities.
“We’re very lucky that Vicki and Jennifer believe in local," Enerson said. Focusing on Arendt, she added that the life-long Eyota resident has been a leader in business in the town for years.
Arendt's father, Al Schumann, opened Eyota Market years ago, and his family, led by Vicki Arendt, made sure the store was sold to someone who'd keep it open in the community.
In addition, she and her husband Chris Arendt own several rental properties in town, and Chris has long been the director of the city's volunteer ambulance service.
"It’s always been important to Chris and me," Vicki Arendt said. "We were raised up to take care of your neighbors."
Arendt said she learned that from her father, who, like her, always seemed to have several businesses going at once. In fact, her father was a developer when she was young, and when the chance came to build her own residential development, she took a page from her dad.
"It's been a very big learning curve," Arendt said with a laugh. "But it’s been fun to do."
Arendt's project thus far is a success. She's sold more townhouse units than she's finished building, and she's confident demand will keep going.
"I bought a lot on Second Street," Arendt said, adding she plans to build a single-family home there. "I just thought it shouldn’t stay empty."