Hope on horizon
I took a crash course in Iowa for two days here last week, and I wish everybody who cares about the state could have learned all I did.
The Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and our group Iowans for a Better Future, in which I'm a board member, partnered to present "Imagine Iowa: Designing Iowa's Future." Some of the state's leading experts and best thinkers came together to brainstorm the problems of today and the possibilities for a brighter tomorrow.
Let me rattle off a bunch of what got my attention:
Iowa ranks third among the states in the longevity of our residents but 49th in retaining our young people, according to Kate Schwennsen, associate dean of Iowa State University's College of Design. Think about that.
In getting our funding in order for public education, Ted Stilwill, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said "we need to crank up our sense of urgency about 55 notches. We haven't been known for acting with blinding speed in Iowa, and that's been an asset in the past. But now, can we make the right decision, and make it in time? I'm not sure we can act quickly enough. If we can't make the right decision on the assets we have, we'll be Arkansas." Stilwill, who is a 50-something, said Iowa needs to start thinking younger, too. "A lot of people my age or older see Iowa as kind of a 'Lassie' movie," he said. "Do you remember 'Lassie' movies, and how they were in black and white?" He also noted that on the Iowa Public Television network, one of the top-rated shows features "a guy who has been dead 10 years and hasn't done a live performance since 1983. Lawrence Welk. What does that say about us?"
Anita Walker, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said after recent travels around the state, "I'm beginning to think that the No. 1 barometer for how Iowa's communities are going to fare in the future is how well they've engaged young people in planning, action and leadership in their community life." The good news, she said, is she's found a bunch of Iowa cities where that is happening.
John Picard, of Los Angeles, a leading expert in energy and real estate infrastructure who is consulting on the "rainforest" project being developed on the edge of Coralville, told us that if we think Iowa has problems, "come to L.A., where their problems are of Biblical proportions compared to what you're dealing with here. Drugs. Gangs. The music industry is leaving because of it, and the film industry is next." In the bigger view, Picard said energy and food production are "the controlling, dominating factors for growth in the world today. Now is the time to do anything in those fields. If we'd design a facility in Iowa that is about agriculture, about the environment, people will come. Design something that aims at making a difference in the world - do something environmental -they will come. From Singapore. From China. From all over the world. They will come to Iowa. I'll tell you, I'm everywhere around the world working, I see it all, and I feel you have a great future, I really do. People will come. Oh, that's the other thing - build a big airport, please - or a bullet train - so we can get here easier."
We've got transportation problems starting to happen in the state, said David Forkenbrock, a University of Iowa professor who directs the Public Policy Center there. One of the biggest concerns "is the number of elderly drivers. Forty percent of Iowans 85 years old or older still have drivers' licenses. There are 146,000 Iowans who are 75 and over who are still driving. Iowa needs to re-double its efforts to find safe, accessible transportation for its elderly people."
Iowa had about 4 million cattle on feed in the 1960s, reported research specialist Mark Salvador of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, but now there are only about 950,000 head. The cattle industry went west and south in the 1970s when many cattle lots were converted to soybean ground, at a time when that crop's value soared to $10 per bushel. (In today's dollars, that would be about $23 per bushel.) But soybean prices and land values dived in the 1980s, much of the land went into conservation programs and a withering farm economy clobbered Iowa's small towns. Hog numbers overall are up, but where we had 100,000 hog farms in 1967, by 2002 there were only 10,000. Farm Bureau is proposing that cattle production be doubled in Iowa to about 1.9 million head, although that idea "is recent, and we have no real strategy right now to make it happen," Salvador said. "If money continues to be good in the beef industry, I think those strategies will come. But I don't see new feedlots popping up. I see a re-population of former feed lots." He said new methods and technology in livestock production mean the doubling in cattle numbers could be done without damaging the environment.
Iowa was doing fine economically through the 1970s, even exceeding most of the nation in economic growth, "until the 1980s, and then everything went to hell," said Harvey Siegelman. For 20 years, he served as Iowa's state economist, and now after his recent retirement, he has founded Strategic Economics Group to do consulting. "Between 1980 and 1990, only four states didn't grow, and only two declined - West Virginia and Iowa," Siegelman said. "We lost one-third of our car dealerships, one-third of our implement dealers, one-third of our banks. We lost two-thirds of the value of our farmland. This was the equivalent for Iowa of what the six years of World War II did to Europe." Things got better in the 1990s, but since 2001, job losses in manufacturing have been staggering. With farming still sputtering, he said Iowa's fastest-growing industries are "in insurance and finance, and in hospitality and recreation. Neither of those are what we'd think of as traditional growth industries in Iowa." What's that "hospitality and recreation"? "Casinos," said Siegelman, "and we've done almost nothing to really promote it. We surveyed the Council Bluffs casinos, and we found their customers coming from 5,500 different Zip codes - 90 percent of them from outside the state."
Government has become an unintended growth industry, said Ron Corbett, chief executive of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and who earlier served 13 years in the Iowa Legislature, including as Speaker of the House. "We have 950 municipal governments in Iowa, more than 46 other states," Corbett said. "We have 99 county governments, more than 42 other states. We have 1,602 township governments, more than every state except Minnesota. We have 2,651 general purpose governments - schools, sewer districts, that kind of thing - which is more than 47 other states. Put that all together, and we have 6.5 percent of the nation's government, while we have only about 1 per cent of the nation's population." He went on to say that "a lot of times you hear this 'too much government' is a rural issue, but actually, it's more an urban problem. We have 49 local governments in Linn County, more than 96 other counties. The only counties that beat us are Polk and Scott," the counties that contain Des Moines and Davenport, respectively.
Ready for some better news? Will Goudy, the recently retired Iowa State University sociologist and Iowa population expert, reported that in the 1990s, Iowa "gained 150,000 residents, one of the largest gains in any decade in the past century." It brought our total population to just over 2.9 million and represented a 5.4 percent gain in a decade. However, Minnesota grew by 12.4 percent, Wisconsin by 9.6 percent, Missouri by 9.3 percent, Illinois by 8.6 percent, Nebraska by 8.4 percent, Kansas and South Dakota by 8.5 percent each. The only Midwestern state that grew by less than we did is North Dakota, which had a .5 percent increase. It's been very slow growth here for a very long time, Goudy said, adding, "Iowa is the only state in the U.S. that, between 1900 and 2000, did not increase its population by 50 percent or more." The 1990s were good in another way, too - 49,000 more people moved into Iowa than left it. That was especially helpful after the 1980s, when "the out-migration of our people was not random," Goudy said. "It was the Baby Boomers, people of that age when they are forming their families, so we not only lost them but we also lost the kids they were going to be having." It's not news that while our urban areas are doing pretty well, rural Iowa has been especially hard hit. Goudy reported that there are now more people living on farmsteads who are not engaged in farming, than there are people on farmsteads who actually are farming. "It's a very different rural Iowa today," he said. "But what it comes down to is that there's more than one Iowa out there, and that's why we have so much trouble with policies of one size fits all. There are so many differences, and a lot of them are wonderful differences." Our recent slow growth has brought more cultural diversity, he noted, explaining that Iowa would have had no growth in the 1990s had it not been for our growing immigrant population. In fact, the minority population represented 103,000 of the 150,000 increase. And they are "overwhelmingly younger" than the established white population here. Projections, he said, "are for more slow but steady growth. Some people don't get excited about that, but I am. That's something we can work with, something manageable. There are some areas of this country that are overwhelmed with too much growth." Our aging, graying population concerns him, though. "In the year 2000, we had only one county - Monona in western Iowa - that had more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 17," he said. "By 2025, we could have 40 counties with more people over 65 than under 17. I'm getting concerned about that, but that same kind of age changing is happening all across the U.S. Maybe what we do about that in Iowa can be helpful to the nation."
Indeed, Governor Tom Vilsack told us that he now sees Iowa becoming something of a trailblazer for the rest of the country in two areas - 1) in economic recovery with new whole new industries that merge agriculture, science and medicine, while expanding our production of alternative energy, and 2) building on the state's historically strong education system and its increasingly-acclaimed livability. He said a lot of that comes from taking action on the "Iowa 2010" recommendations which came from a Strategic Planning Council he appointed when he took office in 1999. "We are in a transition stage in our economy in Iowa," Vilsack said. "With the '2010' effort, we began planning for that transition sooner than most of the rest of the nation, and because of our work to implement the '2010' recommendations, we may have started the actual transformation sooner than other areas of the nation. The '2010' folks met early in my first term. They challenged themselves, and they challenged all of us. They came up with a plan for a new Iowa, a different Iowa, a transformed Iowa. Those recommendations have been the blueprint for this transformation we're going through now. I'm here to say thanks to the '2010' committee, and I also want to thank the group of people who've continued to work on that plan. You know, they could've left that plan sitting on the shelf, sat back and watched to see if anything happened. But they wouldn't do that. They organized a new group to keep the plan alive, to make sure it's implemented. Iowans for a Better Future is that group." Two critical tools for redeveloping and repopulating Iowa, he said, are the "Iowa Values Fund," which can transform the economy, and the "Vision Iowa Program," which already has had a huge impact on lifestyle amenities with new recreational, cultural and entertainment facilities and resources. And think the three E's - education, energy and the environment. Iowa seems poised for national, even global, leadership in all three of those fields.
Two days of all that was definitely a rush.
The audience of 150 architects, planners, R & D folks, government officials, educators and various futurists seemed engaged and inspired.
Sorry you missed it?
Well, there's good news.
The two days of "Iowa think" that happened in Ames is going to be re-presented in an expanded and much more accessible format during April, May and early June.
It is the 10-stop "Imagine Iowa's Future" tour of the state, with early afternoon programming for students, "community showcases" in the late afternoons, pancakes-and-sausage suppers by Chris Cakes of RAGBRAI fame, and then two-hour live radio shows. It'll all be free, too. These will be festivals of information, entertainment and fun, with an opportunity to chat with a lot of those same leading thinkers and experts who wowed the audience in Ames.
It's all aimed at re-engaging the public in this important discussion of the state's possibilities, and then motivating everybody to make those possibilities become reality.
The partnership sponsoring the series includes Iowans for a Better Future, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, WHO radio of Des Moines and the Iowa Radio Network, Iowa Public Television, the Iowa Department of Economic Development's Division of Tourism, the James Gang of Iowa City - an organization of young people promoting "creative endeavors" or community involvement - and some other entities. It's happening with major financial underwriting by the Iowa Association of Realtors.
If you want a "Quick Facts Sheet" to answer your questions about "Imagine Iowa's Future," click on offenburger.com
Vilsack says the project has a very important purpose.
"Now we have to make Iowans fully understand what's happening in this state," he said in Ames. "With the Imagine Iowa's Future project, we're going to show people in cities all over the state, and those listening on radio, that there is a plan in place and we're making progress on it."
* Chuck Offenburger is a board member of the Iowans for a Better Future task force, and a resident of Storm Lake. His writing appears courtesy of the web site www.offenburger.com