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Coming full circle


It may be just days since the Greater Des Moines Partnership announced its choice of Martha Willits for its new president and chief executive, but it’s no surprise that she’s already delivering the Partnership’s message with the voice of a seasoned leader.

After nearly eight years leading United Way of Central Iowa, preceded by 12 years as a Polk County supervisor, the former teacher and volunteer coordinator appears eager to assume a role she says is “the perfect assimilation of all that I care about and all that I believe is really important for the future of this community.”

For Willits, the prospect of heading the organization that coordinates Central Iowa’s economic development efforts is really like completing a circle that began early in her career. She promises to bring a holistic view of economic development as the Partnership begins a pioneering effort to reshape the community’s human services climate through its Project Destiny.

“I think it’s a tremendous advantage to have known this community from a wide array of areas,” Willits said in an interview with the Business Record. “Through these (past) 20 years, I’ve been very closely aligned with the business leadership of this community, both on the public side and on the community-building side. So it’s a real opportunity to bring both kinds of relationships, as well as the knowledge and the experience of economic development, to kind of a full circle. And that’s the kind of time we’re in: a pretty full circle.”

The Eagle Grove native began her career as a public school teacher with the Des Moines Public Schools in 1969. She later taught private music lessons for 14 years, and before joining United Way served as a volunteer coordinator for both local and statewide organizations. Willits holds three degrees from Drake University: a bachelor’s degree in music education, a master in teaching arts, and a master of business administration, which she completed in 1997.

She will succeed Teresa Wahlert, who served for one year as the Partnership’s president before announcing last month that she would take a position as president and chief operations officer for Mid-America Group.

Formed four years ago to give Central Iowa a united voice in economic development, the Greater Des Moines Partnership merged three separate groups that had similar missions of improving the local business climate and helping businesses recruit or expand within the region: the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation, Choose Des Moines Communities and the Downtown Community Alliance.

Beyond Des Moines, the Partnership is also affiliated with 17 chambers of commerce throughout Central Iowa.

Willits is taking the reins just as the Partnership has completed a $17 million fundraising campaign that assures its operating funding for the next five years. The Partnership is also set to announce a new slate of community projects developed out of a year-long visioning effort, Project Destiny.

“I believe it’s a real implementation time,” Willits said. “That’s what this community can do: move to results that are far more collaborative than we probably ever imagined. The advantages I bring to it, I hope, are just great experience in economic development from all angles, and the relationships that it takes to do that.”

Willits said carrying out the Destiny projects will a leading role by the Partnership in delegating the projects to appropriate community agencies so that the Partnership can continue its day-to-day mission of economic development.

Over the next five years, one of the Partnership’s goals through Choose Des Moines Communities, its regional economic development program, is to assist 150 new business expansions or relocations and add $1 billion in overall capital investment by companies in Greater Des Moines.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Community Alliance, which is the Partnership’s downtown economic development arm, will target projects such as the completion of the East and West Gateways and the Court Avenue redevelopment plan.

Willits was unanimously selected by a four-person board that represents the Partnership’s past, present and future leadership. It included 2004 Chairman J. Barry Griswell, president and chief executive of Principal Financial Group Inc., along with 2003 chairman Steve Zumbach, an attorney with Belin Lamson McCormick Zumbach Flynn. Vice Chair Mary Stier, president and publisher of the Des Moines Register, is the chair-elect for 2005; Vice Chair Mark Oman, group executive vice president of Wells Fargo & Co., will be the Partnership’s 2006 chairman.

Willits was the board’s first choice among a number of candidates who were considered, Griswell said.

“I’ve traveled with her nationally and I’ve seen her operate in a number of different forums,” said Griswell, who has worked with Willits for the past three years heading United Way campaigns. “It does give me great confidence in our selection.”

Griswell also served with Willits last year as co-chair of the Project Destiny Human Services Task Force, one of five community task forces that have recommended projects that will be announced at the Partnership’s annual dinner on Jan. 29.


Having been involved in that process represents an “enormous transition advantage” for Willits, Griswell said.

“I think there is an awakening in our community that [economic development is] more about human capital, it’s more about tapping into the resources of all of our citizens, and she will bring that, no doubt,” he said. “I will also say as president she will bring great emphasis on economic development. I think it will be very balanced, and that’s the new model. It’s not one or the other; it’s a complete, holistic view of our community and I think she’ll bring that in a very positive way.”

Under Willits’ leadership, United Way of Central Iowa saw a 25 percent increase in contributions in the past three years, increasing by $1 million each year to buck a national trend that’s seen no increases in giving.   Willits has a “contagious enthusiasm,” said Doextra Corp. President Sunnie Richer, who chaired United Way of Central Iowa for two years.

“I’m a fan of Martha’s,” said Richer, who said Willits has a rare combination of being both a visionary capable of seeing the big picture and a consensus builder.

“She’s able to work with people from many different areas,” Richer said. “I think she’ll be able to help Des Moines move forward because she can help people work together. … I know we have a winner here.”

Willits’ terms as county supervisor, which extended from 1984 to 1996, were a beginning period for economic development efforts in Polk County, she said.

“County government at that time did not have much of a role in economic development,” Willits said. “It would have been typical for a county of this size to develop (an economic development department) of its own at that point. So I brought the request to the Chamber to be our economic development experts. … It really helped us think in broader ways.”

Willits spent a great deal of time with Chamber leadership to shape the projects that are now coming to fruition, among them the Gateway projects and the new Science Center of Iowa.

John Mauro, current chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors, said he worked very well with Willits.

“If I had to describe Martha, she’s a very intelligent person who has vision,” he said. “She was always supportive of economic development when she was with the county.”

An advantage she brings to the Partnership is all of the people she knows from both United Way and county government, Mauro said.   “One of her abilities is she’s able to think outside the box,” he said. “She’ll be good.”

Willits said many of the community projects that were originally envisioned as 10- to 20-year undertakings are playing out much faster than she and others believed they could when the plan was written just six years ago.


“It’s very smart of the Partnership to say, let’s be the catalyst for the next vision plan,” she said. “If these 10 or 20-year things are going to take six to 10 years, we better get the next one going.”

Because the next projects are very much human services and community-oriented, they will require even more partnering than the current projects, she said.

“This is very much now a hand-off time, to find the home or the lead for these projects. This is a new kind of partnering, with community organizations, but it’s a great thing for this community. It’s the perfect role for the Partnership – to set up a vision and see it to the end and keep about our business of really expanding economic opportunity here.”

Asked whether the Partnership might have a role in helping the city of Des Moines and and Polk County in combining services, Willits said it can serve as an example and encourager.   

“If you think of what the Partnership is, it’s a great example of an organization that’s created an umbrella of combined services, a common mission and vision and a common talking table that stretches across at least three counties,” she said. “In my mind, the Partnership is a perfect example of the ability for a community to come together and represent itself as one. We are working to stand tall against all other metropolitan areas worldwide.”

If her past patterns are any indication, Willits might be expected to stay on as the Partnership’s president for the long haul.

“I’m a loyalist and have a lot of longevity,” she said. “That’s my pattern. (Staying for the long-term) would be my desire because this is the perfect assimilation of all that I care about and all that I believe is really important for the future of this community, and that’s what drives me personally. To be able spend a long chunk of time working in economic development as that driver to the real success of this community, that is absolutely where I want to be.”

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