Durham outlines path forward for Iowa

IEDA director visits LCEDG's center Wednesday


LEE COUNTY – A group gathered for breakfast at the Lee County Career Advantage Center Wednesday morning learned that Iowa is leaping over other states as a destination for people and industries looking to relocate around the country.
Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham spoke for close to 30 minutes to about 50 people at the CAC in Montrose, highlighting the steps Governor Kim Reynolds and various Iowa agencies are taking to position the state strategically not only for corporate investment, but also to attract the 20-40 year-old demographic to the state.
Lee County Economic Development Group President Dennis Fraise called Durham “a rock star” on the national landscape.
“There’s only one state economic development director that’s a rock star,” Fraise told the group. “And we have that person. Debi is hands down the very best economic development director in the country.”
Durham outlined how Iowa has positioned itself through data-driven analysis dating back to 2011 to become a go-to state in the union.
“It’s all about creating a business climate or culture in which our businesses can prosper,” she said.
The culture is created around taxation, regulations, workforce development, infrastructure development, and a transportation grid.
But she said today it’s just as important to focus on community development.
“It’s about creating communities in which people want to live. Iowa’s greatest challenge is we have a population problem. It was pre-COVID and it still is today.”
She said placemaking, housing, and quality of life are now just as important as the economic factors, and policies and programs will create the vibrant communities.
She pointed to biosciences, advanced manufacturing, finance, and insurance, information technologies innovations, and other “mature platforms”.
But she said the workforce participation is one of the key indicators that companies looking to come to Iowa stare at.
“This is everyone 18 years old to retirement that is, as able-bodied to work, working. We’re at 67.7% today that was 70.3% pre-COVID – second highest in the country. So what happened and who’s sitting on the sideline?” Durham asked.
COVID forced people close to retirement to exit the workforce because 401Ks were healthy. She said women also left in massive numbers to run the homes because kids were home and they had to make decisions to navigate the pandemic when 33% of day care and child care centers closed.
The most alarming, she said, was young men 25-34 who aren’t working.
“Where are they? Well, some say they are back in their parents’ basements. So I encourage any of you that have that, kick ‘em out. Launch them. They got burnt out during COVID and they are out trying to find themselves. I don’t know where the hell they are, but they need to get back to work.”
According to data, she said Iowa is still trending better than most with the average unemployment claim at just 10 weeks. Changes include unemployed being assigned case workers who identify barriers to entry back into work. Those staff help move people to careers they are happier with.
She also said Iowans need to birth more children as a natural organic way to grow the population. Durham is a grandmother to four boys and another on the way.
“But we have to recruit people in. We have to focus as much on talent attraction as we do on industry attraction,” she said.
The IEDA runs the state tourism office and she said data asked questions around why people live here and what was attractive to those who have moved in. During COVID, the state turned its message to asking people to visit and invest when no one was leaving “their bunkers”.
The data showed that COVID changed the way people look at what they called home. Seven out of 10 respondents said it did, per IEDA data. Those demographics were 20-40 year-olds and that is the market the state is working to attract.
Early data showed that cost of living, economic vitality, outdoor recreation, connectivity, and arts and culture were the primary factors when people looked to move. The information has changed slightly since the pandemic has waned and safety is now the number two factor in where people choose to live.
“It’s no wonder when you see what’s happening in our iconic cities in the country. Whether it’s Minneapolis, in our backyard, or Chicago. Policies matter. People do not feel safe.”
Reynolds then decided to raise the profile of the state around those factors and contracted with a marketing firm to create a campaign around “where rolling hills meet small bills.” The campaign ran nationally and through influencers and drone footage of state parks and Iowa’s landscape.
Durham said the perception of Iowa’s beauty went up dramatically when people started to see Iowa for what it was, and not for what they didn’t know.
She said carbon sequestration and renewable hydrogen are new initiatives in the state.
Emily Benjamin, LCEDG Vice President of Economic Development, updated the group on the activities of the organization, including the launching of the first chapter of C.E.O in Iowa. The chapter of Creating Economic Opportunities, is built around high school students who will meet every day for a year at businesses and the CAC and will have mentors that challenge them to get involved in communities, as well as creating businesses that will actually produce and sell products and/or services.
She said LCEDG is still working diligently on business growth and expansion, and will continue to do so. They are also continuing to develop certified development sites in the county, so digging deeper on broadband, natural gas, marketing, and figuring out what’s next.

Debi Durham, IEDA, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Lee County Economic Development Group, LCEDG, staff, Dennis Fraise, Emily Benjamin, news, Pen City Current


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