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A Closer Look: Rick Sanders

Take a closer look at the new president of Iowa State University Research Park


Rick Sanders, president of the Iowa State University Research Park in Ames, describes himself as an “outside-the-box” kind of hire. 

Sanders’ first career route took him through sports. Before coming to Iowa, he was assistant general manager for the AA baseball team Birmingham Barons, general manager of the Bozeman Ice Dogs, president and commissioner of the American West Hockey League, and commissioner of the Midwest Collegiate Conference, a position he held before joining the Story County Board of Supervisors in 2010.

Tell us about your background. 

I thought I was going to be a coach at one point, and ended up in athletic administration and then event management, and just kept growing through that. I got interested in politics in 2008, and that led to the Story County Board of Supervisors, where I served since 2010. I was chair of the board for six of those nine years, and then the opportunity to be president of the Research Park came up, and I went after it. 

You grew up in Alabama – how did you find your way to Story County?

A circuitous route. Calli is from Montana … her first job out of college was at the University of Alabama, and I was working with the basketball team there. … Things progressed with us and then the opportunity came to move to Bozeman, Mont., and we took it. Calli got her doctorate while we were in Montana, and she had a chance to go be the dean of students at the University of Maine. … We were only there a couple years, then opportunity came to come to Story County at Iowa State University [where Dr. Sanders is senior associate athletic director] in 2003. We’ve been here ever since. 

Once I got into politics and county administration, government administration, pretty rapidly I got interested in economic development and how we grow our communities. I did some work with the Research Park on economic development for the county and for the state. … Steve Carter, who’s my predecessor at the Research Park, had been there for 20-plus years. … I’m clearly an outside-the-box kind of hire — they went through a national search, and I know the finalists were me and three really traditional-looking candidates who appear to be really good candidates for a university research park, and I really am not the traditional choice. But I think my demonstrated ability to make contacts, to lead a team and to problem-solve were all things that drew the hiring authorities to offer me a role. 

How will your background in county government and administration serve you at the Research Park? 

I think understanding the way government looks at economic development and community development will be helpful. But even more helpful than that, I think the contacts and working relationships that I built through county government — specifically Story County government, but state relationships and of course local relationships — is what I’m already finding I’m drawing on the most. 

What’s the best piece of advice or feedback you’ve received since taking on this role? 

There’s a solution to every issue we face. You’ve just got to work hard enough to find it. 

What are the issues facing the Research Park? 

Sustaining, and even increasing, the growth trajectory. The Research Park has grown a substantial amount over the last eight years. If you accept the old adage that an organization that is not growing is actually dying, we’ve got to continue that growth and figuring out exactly how to do that in a market like Ames and Story County. Story County recently has been the lowest unemployment rate in America. … When you’re dealing with a 1.5% unemployment rate, and you’re trying to do some job development, it’s hard to see where you’re going to fill these jobs from. So [we’re] trying to make sure that we’re on a good solid growth trajectory, but that growth trajectory has to include a workforce development component, or we’re not going to have the people to fill the jobs. 

How has the Research Park affected business development in Story County? 

It has an enormous impact. I think it is the focal point of where Iowa State University meets business community, and how that interaction occurs. That’s two different languages, right? The language that is spoken on a college campus is different than the language that is spoken in business. Trying to figure out that connection point and how those two translate to really speak to each other, and make sure they’re maximizing the resources that each entity brings to the table — it can be hugely impactful. 

When the Research Park was not growing, in 2002-2010, things were pretty stagnant in terms of new space built on ground acquired by the Research Park.

… In all of Ames and Story County, we saw 500 private sector jobs developed. From 2011 to 2018, we saw 7,000 private sector jobs created in the area, and during that time, we saw employment at the Research Park double. 

What would you like to see happen for the Research Park in the next year?

I’d like to see continued growth, I’d like to see continued relationships. I don’t know that I, at this point, have an exact metric. … What I’m going to be really interested in is what our trajectory will look like. 

My predecessor, Steve Carter, did a phenomenal job at the Research Park for many, many years. I think he had an inward focus [where] he focused on … all that was happening in the Research Park. Both [internal and external] are important, and he did both, but I think he had a focus on the internal over external. … I think I’m going to be more focused on the external and how we’re building those relationships and making those connections. I don’t think I’m going to get into the trap of what that growth has to look like in order to [know] whether we’re being successful in creating that.

This is not the Ames or the Story County Research Park, right? It’s the Iowa State University Research Park, so our connections need to be bigger and broader than that. … We are that connection point, or one of the connection points, for Iowa State University and the business community, and everything that flows back and forth — workforce idea development, research, everything that can happen in the space. So we’ve got to make sure that there is a lot more awareness — in Ames and Story County, but in the Cultivation Corridor and in the state at large — that the Research Park exists. 

I would hope that long term, we see very clear Research Park activity occurring in all corners of the state. I think if it’s successful, that’s what you’re going to see longer term. 

What have you been listening to/reading/watching lately?

Recently, TED Talks specifically about how the world is — that’s what I find I’m turning on at night and start to drift off thinking about.

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