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'Talk Nerdy to Me'

Friday, November 16, 2012

(Photo)
Deb Durham, Director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told the annual gathering of Storm Lake United Tuesday night that Gov. Branstad's economic policies are "moving the needle" in the right direction, but that the real future of Iowa may be in the hands of communities like Storm Lake.

"It's what you have done here in Storm Lake - no matter what you do with the economy, you still have to have communities you can recruit people to come to live in," she said.

From waterfront renovation to wireless communications to improvements to college campuses to "recapturing" downtowns, it often requires a change in strategy to make Iowa communities appeal to a new generation.

"Young people look at things differently than you or I do," she told the crowd of local businesspeople. "It's actually kind of refreshing, I think. The young people in Iowa today are the first generation to really be color-blind, they are very global thinking. Many have already traveled outside of the country as part of their education, and they are not intimidated. They are very tolerant, very sustaining, and they want to live in places that are the same way."

It is important for communities to learn about what younger people want out of life, she added.

"When we came up, maybe it was that nice house in suburbia that we thought was important. That's not the way it is now - the young people of today may never own a house or want to. Are we building a community they will want to come home to?"

While much is said about unemployment rates, Durham feels that Iowa is actually close to fuctionally "full employment." There is no such thing as simply eliminating all of the people in an unemployment line - some will always not be employable, she says. The future of Iowa communities is not just putting people from unemployment lines to work, but bringing young adults from Iowa back to Iowa.

"They will go find that the grass isn't always greener - we all have to do that. But when they reach that point when they realize Iowa wasn't so bad after all, we have to have the kind of jobs they want here for them."

Storm Lake has already done some of the things that are needed, and should recognize that. "I hope you all realize what a beautiful community you have, how lucky you are to have the university that you do. We're so used to seeing what is wrong with our home communities that we don't always see how far we have come."

Iowans are humble by nature - a good thing at the end of the day when they talk to their maker, but not such a great trait when it comes to attracting people and business, Durham said.

The good news is that outside the state, there is not a negative perception of Iowa to have to erase. The bad news is that there is no perception at all - except a vague idea that Iowa is all corn and all flat, she said.

For one thing, Iowans should not apologize for its farming identity, she suggests, but use it as an asset. "Farming is one of the most innovative fields there is. We feed the world, we export to all over the world - we are a world player."

Iowa is also seeking to capitalize on its technological expertise. For recruitment events of technology-savvy prospects, economic emissaries distribute Iowa pocket protectors that say, "Talk Nerdy to Me" with a list inside of all the patents that have recently come out of the state. An unlikely took for a department of economic development, but perhaps it is time for the unusual.

Durham added that in 2011, one unusual tactic was to invite the leaders of companies considering development in the state to discover it by riding the RAGBRAI bike marathon, staying overnights with local business CEOs in their homes.

Branstad confided to Durham that he hoped the idea didn't kill a pack of business luminaries in the midsummer heat. It seemed like a better idea in January, Durham joked, saying that this year, they will make sure the ride is offered to more athletic CEOs as a "tough man and tough woman" experience.

The development leader, who formerly held the role of economic leadership in Sioux City, echoed Branstad's strategy for economic recovery - cutting corporate taxation and regulation, with the idea that the money left "sitting on the sidelines" to pay high taxes will instead be used to expand and add jobs.

Branstad has a five-prong list of goals to achieve before the end of his term, according to Durham, including a 25 percent increase in family incomes, a 15 percent cut in state government costs, 200,000 new jobs, re-establishment of the state as the leader in education, and making Iowa the healthiest state in the nation.

While Democrats might contest, she suggests that he is well on the way to achieving the goals. She said that Iowa has $3,514,848,000 in new economic activity since Branstad was elected, not including a $1.7 million project announced last week. The job count from new developments in Iowa is 13,478, not including the construction jobs and spin-off employment from those companies. She felt progress was being made, but admitted, "I don't know where we will be in two years."

Iowa is not "buying jobs," she adds, but using mostly tax credits as incentives. As opposed to giving cash, if projects are not successful and profitable, the tax credits are taken back.

While new companies from out of state moving in grab the headlines, it is important to remember than 80 percent of the actual growth in Iowa comes in the form of expansion from within by existing Iowa companies, Durham said.

"I am encouraged by what I see."

Also at Tuesday's annual banquet, several local businesses were honored for their growth, milestones or new locations, including:

* BV Stationary

* Family Dental Center

* Storm Lake Radio

* Automotive Service Center

* Buena Vista University

* An individual award was given to Stephanie Beck, of Faith, Hope & Charity

New Storm Lake United leaders were elected for the coming year - Katie Schwint as president, Hannah Campbell as vice president, and Ben Dvergsten as secretary/treasurer.

CEO Gary Lalone noted that several local manufacturers are currently looking to expand, and several new retailers are in constant communication with the agency as they consider locating in Storm Lake. In one case, an option has already been obtained on a commercial lot that Storm Lake United is very excited about, he said.

Storm Lake was also recently named one of the top 50 Micropolitan communities in the U.S., and gained publicity being featured last summer in a national fishing TV program. Twenty-two ribbon-cuttings on business developments have taken place in the past year, he said.

Events are also a bright spot, according to Lalone.

Plans are well underway for Miracle on Lake Avenue December 6, and beginning for Winter Fest February 8-10. LakeFest will return next year with exciting musical guests, and a new event to be called Wood, Wine and Blues will be announced later.



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