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Iowa should promote creativity, tolerance


A strategy of trying to lure former Iowans back to the state once they have moved away and started families is likely doomed to failure, a prominent economist said last week.

However, a relatively new approach to economic development that focuses on attracting workers to Iowa instead of trolling for companies to relocate here will yield strong benefits in the future, according to Michael Florida, a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life,” created a ripple across regional economic development circles when it was published last spring.

In the book, Florida argues that cities and states need to tap the world’s growing “creative class,” highly mobile and affluent elites whose work is based on brain power rather than brawn. Florida came to Des Moines last week for a round of discussions with state and local leaders. The visit, which cost $10,000, was sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Des Moines Business Record and more than a dozen other organizations.     Florida’s arrival comes at a time when the state’s political and economic development leaders are trying to jump-start Iowa’s economy by promoting a version of his vision. Roughly two months into his job, Iowa Department of Economic Development Director Michael Blouin has said that the state needs to make itself attractive to workers first, and that companies will follow talent.

“The key is not to retain Iowans, but to attract others,” he said. “Leaders need to construct an environment that is accepting of mobile people.     The creative class, which includes a variety of professions ranging from musicians to software engineers, is drawn to places where tolerance and shared learning, combined with cultural activities and recreation, are in great supply, Florida said.

Florida, an economist with a Ph.D from Columbia University, is the H. John Heinz III Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon. He has been a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.     Among cities of comparable size, Des Moines ranks second in Florida’s so-called Creativity Index, behind Madison, Wis., and ahead of Santa Barbara, Calif.     There are several elements in Iowa that are troubling to Florida. The state’s “English only” law, enacted last year, may tend to duiscourage immigration, which Iowa badly needs to create growth, he said.

And though the idea may be unpopular to a largely agrarian state, Iowa also ought to phase out attempts to shore up the economies of small towns and rural areas because the efforts will cost more than the benefits they yield, Florida said.

When it comes to repatriating Iowans who have started families elsewhere, Florida said the idea wouldn’t yield long-term benefits because the state “will lose more than it gets back.”

Another problem, he said, is that not all families stay together. And newly single adults who are members of the creative class will seek out places to live that can deliver a more vibrant lifestyle, he said.

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