Placemaking. Innovation and creativity. And addressing issues that directly affect the state’s workforce and its ability to attract and retain top talent. Those were the messages that came from three think-tank sessions that brought together economic development and business leaders from across Iowa.


The Business Record in collaboration with the Iowa Economic Development Authority created the Envision Iowa series this year to help Iowa thrive and grow. Its goal was to create opportunities for economic development and business leaders to connect, share ideas, discuss what’s working in their communities and what hasn’t been working, and offer each other possible solutions to those challenges.


As part of the initiative, three think-tank sessions were held, with each focusing on a particular topic. The first one in July focused on people and culture, the second one in August focused on business opportunities, and the third, held on Sept. 21, focused on infrastructure. They were followed by a public event on Oct. 6.


Each think tank session featured a panel of speakers who shared their thoughts and experiences with the by-invitation-only audience. During each program, the audience was separated into two breakout sessions to share their takeaways from the discussion, what resonated most with them and how their organization or community is addressing a particular issue.


As varied as the conversations were, there were some common themes that were threaded throughout all three think-tank sessions.


On people and places

“As we move past COVID, what are we looking at? I think the future is … all about workforce, workforce, workforce. In Iowa we have two issues. We have a population issue. We have slow population growth. We have an aging population. We have more jobs than we have people to fill them. That is true today and that was true prior to COVID. When you think about our population, 44% of our growth basically came from immigration, and then we’re going to be talking about diversity and what that makeup is.” - Debi Durham, executive director, Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“What can we do to [attract talent and workforce]? Placemaking comes in as providing those amenities, those community services … but one thing that [is] more of a policy issue in a way we can try to attract population is immigration needs to play a role as well. That’s something that is a federal policy issue, and we need to continue to beat the drum because Iowa is not growing at the rate other states are, and we need to do everything we can to try to attract population.” - Drew Kamp, president and CEO, Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce.

“When I talk about workforce, I always remind people that there are two buckets. One is the K-12 education pipeline. The other is those that are already in the workforce. We need to be working with employers to create opportunities for career exploration and opportunities for students. We also think it’s important to continue with employers and community leaders on what does it mean? What does it look like to be a welcOming community to all people?” - Della Schmidt, president and CEO, Greater Burlington Partnership.

“One of the barriers is change. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. People typically resist change.

But we have to make a commitment and we have to be focused with laser tenacity so that the change can be sustainable and ongoing. It’s not just a catchy phrase. Change the way we market. Change the way we recruit and hire. Change the way we develop partnership in the community in which we live, work and play. That’s the only way we’re going to improve that trajectory, increase diversity, increase the people that are attracted to be in our wonderful state.” - Angela Jackson, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, Athene.

“It’s interesting to think about why people are leaving cities, and if they are, where they go. They  may not want a super-small town but they want a community for reasons we don’t even know yet. So whatever our plan is, there are lots of little situations and little magnets and attractions for people. There’s not one magic thing. I think we have to think about lots of little reasons that could pull different pockets of people to Iowa.” - Michael Morain, communications manager, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

On business opportunities

“We should be talking about creating a more positive business climate, for entrepreneurs in particular. We should be doing everything we can to be welcoming and inclusive, but that also includes trying to elevate those next-generation talents in our communities, focusing in on areas of entrepreneurship that will lead to further technology advances in our state. We’ve had a great history over the past 20 years or so, but it’s all been deliberate, so we need to be strategic and deliberate and forward-thinking over the next generation.” - Joe Murphy, executive director, Iowa Business Council.

“Probably the two biggest talent attractors to Iowa are Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, and we need to do more to encourage them to bring out-of-state individuals into Iowa. With the companies, we need to work harder to keep them here, because with everything we’ve got going on, internships, etc., we can integrate them into the pipeline from any of these companies.” - Rob Denson, president, Des Moines Area Community College.

“I think it’s just important that we highlight the creative solutions. When someone comes up with a really creative solution to one of these problems, if the word gets out about how that worked, what worked well and what didn’t work, then that allows other communities to say, could we do something like that here? Telling those stories, and allowing other areas in Iowa and across the state to say, oh, we can do that here, I think that goes a really long way.” - Aaron Horn, executive director, NewBoCo.

“We could really set ourselves up to be the next ag semiconductor, and the ag Silicon Valley right here in Iowa. If we could collaborate and have some really strong partnerships with those companies that are in ag and continue to work on developing the talent, there is no reason why we couldn’t be seen as that tech expert for the ag industry here in Iowa. The more we can collaborate with private and public partnerships to do that, we will definitely be successful. We know Iowa is a great state. Families do well here. We have a great cost of living, entertainment activities, great hiking and bicycling trails, great schools and universities, so we really need to be able to leverage those things to build that talent so that we can be that premier state around agriculture.” - Rosalind Fox, plant manager, John Deere Des Moines Works, Ankeny.

“Develop a strong list of resources you provide. When you meet people, you want to be able to show value and make sure that value becomes reality for them. So get that list of resources you’ve provided for a company’s development.” - Gary Sterling, Buena Vista University and Lamberti Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

On infrastructure

“Just like we’ve heard, the pandemic elevated where people really wanted to spend their time when society slowed down. We also saw what society needed at its core to function. So stripping back a little bit more out of the fringes, we saw child care was needed, and even before the pandemic started we lost 33% of our child care providers in the last five years. When you look at the facts, the average Iowa family spends more on child care than they do on their housing each month. With the rising level of costs, it’s just getting very hard for families to find quality and affordable child care. When we’re trying to grow communities, and when you’re trying to recruit people in rural communities, one of the first things is where can I have child care.” - Emily Schmitt, chief administrative officer and general counsel, Sukup Manufacturing Co., and member of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

“$100 million for broadband, that’s a big deal … but we actually need $800 million to get broadband right all the way across the state. So the $100 million is a nice start, but we’re going to have to realize that’s going to be a multiyear journey, or we’ll have to do more towards it in the short term.” - Ryan Schapp, CIO, Wells Enterprises.

“We just don’t have enough people, and the people we have are getting older. It’s people to work, and with housing shortages, we really see immigration as the only way to grow – and we don’t have places to house people. We haven’t recovered from the 163 homes that we lost in  the 2008 flood, so getting market-rate housing and rental housing stock is probably step one for us.” - Robin Anderson, president and CEO of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce.

“Housing is really critical to economic development, both for attraction and retention of workers, for childhood education, for stability of homes and for family health, it’s so interconnected and is a basic need, really, for all Iowans. The goal for us is [to] make housing attainable so someone pays less than 30% of their gross income on housing. So for those families that make less than $18.50 an hour, that’s about $960 a month.” - Jenny Cooper, vice president and manager of commercial real estate, Bankers Trust.

“We’re an industry that’s struggling with workforce. As our communities see more and more providers move away or retire, the problem we have is new providers don’t find those as attractive places to come and practice because if you’re in those communities, you’re the doctor for 365 days a year or maybe have a partner … and folks don’t want to practice in an environment where they are on call half the year, all night. What we really think about is how can we have a more collaborative health care infrastructure that helps meet people where they are so they can have a team behind them so they feel like even if I practice in a rural community I’m connected to a team that helps me cover health care issues I can’t handle? Secondly is really to explore the potential of telehealth to supplement what providers can do. As we think about this, it’s how can we make health care accessible where folks are, but make sure that care is connected to a broader system of care that works for all Iowans?” - Suresh Gunaskaran, CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.  

“COVID showed us people can work from wherever they want around the world. Why would someone choose Iowa? We have to have something for them to do in their time off, and we have to play up our unique attributes. We need to highlight those things to people and let them know what they can do when they’re not busy. This will be a big part of our legislative agenda coming up in 2022, but we need to find ways to make your communities attractive, but show their uniqueness. We have great variety in Iowa.” - Barbara Sloniker, executive vice president, Siouxland Chamber of Commerce, Sioux City.