Richard Benda, former state Tourism and State Development secretary who died of a gunshot wound Tuesday, made many lasting contributions to Aberdeen, including assisting with the startups of Molded Fiber Glass and Northern Beef Packers.
Economic development officials in Aberdeen are mourning the loss of Benda, who served on the board of directors of the Aberdeen Development Corporation.
"It is shocking," said Jim Barringer, executive vice president of the ADC. "He was extremely professional and knew the nuances of financing a business deal. But most importantly, he was a fine human being."
"I'm still at a loss for words about it," said Julie Johnson, executive director of Absolutely! Aberdeen, who worked with Benda on many economic initiatives, including those related to tourism. "I want his family to know how grateful the people of Aberdeen are for his work."
Benda, who served as tourism and state development secretary from 2006 to 2010 under former Gov. Mike Rounds, was a proponent of starting a beef plant in Aberdeen. Under Rounds' direction, he helped in arranging state financial assistance and traveled to Asia to spark interest in foreign investment in the plant.
After leaving the Rounds administration, he worked as a loan monitor for Northern Beef Packers investors.
"It wouldn't have been built without him," Johnson said.
Benda was found dead from a gunshot wound in a grove of trees near Lake Andes in southeast South Dakota. The death is under investigation, according to Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Benda recently had started a new job as director of economic development at Heartland Consumers Power District with headquarters in Madison.
Rounds said Benda was a hard-working, effective cabinet member. He not only helped attract foreign investment for the beef plant, but also investments for other projects in the state.
"He was very knowledgable about the EB-5 program," he said. "He worked very hard to make sure South Dakota got much-needed capital to grow our economy."
The EB-5 program grants permanent resident status (green cards) to individuals who invest at least $500,000 for new or expanding businesses. Sixty-nine Korean investors used the EB-5 program to invest in Northern Beef Packers.
One of Benda's lasting legacies will be bringing investment to South Dakota, Rounds said.
"While the beef plant in Aberdeen is not operating, that asset is not going away," he said. "Someone will eventually buy it and create jobs for Aberdeen."
Barringer said Benda had a sophisticated understanding of finance. He had a broad experience, including working in New York in the finance industry, as a regional director for the Governor's Office of Economic Development and director of the Watertown economic development group.
As a state official, he provided techical assistance to Molded Fiber Glass when it was opening its plant in Aberdeen.
He had a down-to-earth, common-sense way of handling a problem, which he learned from growing up on a ranch, Barringer said.
"He knew what it was like to work in finance, and he knew what it was like to be a cowboy," he said. "His death is a real loss for all of us."
Johnson said Benda was well liked.
"Most people just loved him," she said.
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