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Iowa 'smart growth' plan

Friday, October 26, 2001

State will have to get past a phobia of immigrants to reach 2010 goals, insists SL's Offenburger, new group.

By DANA LARSEN

Pilot-Tribune Editor

One year after their much- debated plan calling for a "new face of Iowa," several original members of the governor's Iowa 2010 team have decided that they aren't willing to let their ground-breaking report collect dust on the legislative shelf.

"We feel the blueprint we put out over a year ago now is even more valid today than it was then," said Chuck Offenburger, Storm Lake, one of the members of the group.

"If we follow the eight recommendations that came out of that process, Iowa is going to be a popping place by 2010... if we don't, we will see the problems that have happened to us this past year just keep happening."

The governor's Iowa 2010 team disbanded right after delivering its findings to state leaders in 2000, but of the original 37 members, about 15 including Offenburger have decided to keep on meeting, now independent of Gov. Tom Vilsack's control.

Now known as Iowans for a Better Future, the group just published a new booklet in hopes of keeping the state from ignoring their recommendations.

"We have not done enough to implement a plan for Iowa's future," said Jerry Kelley, Indianola, director of the group.

"We will try to continue to reach the public and tell them that here is a vision of what Iowa could be like by the year 2010," Offenburger said.

A lot has changed in Iowa in the 13 months since the report made a splashy, sometimes controversial debut, and the softening of the state's economy has no doubt slowed the resolve of lawmakers to implement recommendations, Offenburger said.

"Iowa's had to look in a lot of new directions, but we are saying that we need to remember what those eight goals were, and where they can still take us," he said. "I still feel that they are the real blueprint for rebuilding and repopulating Iowa."

The plan calls for:

* Growing Iowa population, including attracting additional immigration,

* Completing high-speed telecommunications developments to reach every home and business in Iowa,

* Creating innovative "life science" products and companies to provide new uses for Iowa crops in an emerging agri-tech industry,

* Growing recreation and cultural opportunities to keep young Iowans in the state and attract more visitors,

* Increasing the number of better-paying jobs to improve quality of life,

* Improving on education programs from preschool to advanced education to produce better-prepared Iowans,

* Growing production of renewable energy sources while protecting Iowa natural resources,

* Creating leaner, innovative government structures and processes to deliver government services more efficiently and conveniently.

So how is Iowa doing do far? Not so hot, Offenburger admits.

"There are a few ideas that are being acted on, for example the Vision Iowa program fits right in with goal four. But on wages and income, and on education - except for teacher salaries - and on most of the other recommendations, not much has been done."

The two goals that strike Offenburger as critical are the first two on the list - growing population and extending telecommunication access across rural Iowa.

The Iowa 2010 group agreed with industry leaders who feel the state will need to boost the population by 310,000 working adults in the next decade to fill jobs and make up for a blast of retirements from the aging population. Offenburger figures that to get that many of working age, Iowa will have to increase population overall by half a million bodies - not an easy task when the state has grown by only 130,000 to 140,000 people between the 1990 and 2000 Census studies.

The population recommendation was also the most controversial of the lot, because it called for Iowa to go to Congress and ask to be declared an "Immigration Enterprise Zone."

According to Offenburger, that would cause immigration limits to be completely waived for a time while Iowa would recruit newcomers all around the world. A poll immediately showed that many Iowans didn't want any additional immigration, and since then, public opinion has only grown against immigration, he feels.

"It's not surprising me, but it is disappointing me," he said. "We have to get over this and be more open to people from around the world and around the country. Storm Lake is right where the rest of Iowa needs to be - neighborly and accepting of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Because of that, Storm Lake is growing, and the rest of rural Iowa is not."

Offenburger notes that instead of promoting immigration, the Iowa legislators will probably renew their perennial debate to force an English as the "official language" bill on its diversifying citizenry. "That just gives us a black eye around the world," he said.

While the governor has proposed a tax break for college graduates to keep more young people in the state, and efforts have been made to attract former Iowans to return, the third leg of the population stool will have to be immigration. "People are afraid of it, but immigration is our heritage here in rural Iowa. The stories we have happening today are no different than those of our parents or grandparents. The neatest communities in the state are those with a particular ethnic base to them, and we can build more of those kind of communities," Offenburger said.

He still believes that Iowa can increase population by half a million people within ten years, although it will have to start working immediately to do so.

"If we don't get them, we will start losing our companies, and then our economy will really go into a downward spiral," he said.

There is also much work to be done quickly on goal two - to deliver high-speed telecommunications availability to the whole state.

"Frankly, Iowa's bigger cities will be fine no matter whether any of these recommendations are followed or not. Where it matters is rural Iowa. The cities already have all the technology, but telecommunications access is still rare in small town Iowa. In Storm Lake, we are very lucky to have a system being built," Offenburger said.

The original report called for Iowa to deliver high speed access to all businesses by 2003, and all homes by 2005 - by encouraging private development or expanding on the Iowa Communications Network fiber optic system to places where private systems are impossible.

"I continue to be very afraid that Iowa will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide and will never catch up," Offenburger said.

The current economic situation and population trends should be a reminder to Iowans of how precarious their future could be, he added. "When we talk to legislative leaders, the all pretty much embrace the ideas of the report, and that may be remarkable in itself. If we are able to follow them, Iowa will be put back in the forefront of the midwest."

Many people can and have found things in the recommendations to argue with, and that's part of the process. "It was designed to be bold and challenge people's thinking," Offenburger said.

The new Iowans for a Better Future group will stress education on these issues and build coalitions with various groups in the state, while a separate effort will be made to lobby legislators to its way of thinking.

"We will keep pushing these ideas for as long as it takes," Offenburger said. "We simply have to bring people into the countryside."



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