New regional economic development group helping communities win grant dollars for community improvements
Michael Crumb Feb 6, 2023 | 5:23 pm
6 min read time1,403 wordsAll Latest News, Economic Development, Real Estate & Development
A new regional economic development organization is poised to support Central Iowa communities as they try to tap into federal funding they may not have previously been qualified for.
The Mid-Iowa Planning Alliance is the result of talks that began at the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization shortly after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 as stimulus dollars to help communities recover started to become available.
The MPO began talking about creating an economic development district, a designation needed to access U.S. Economic Development Administration programs that Central Iowa didn’t typically qualify for because it couldn’t demonstrate a strong enough need.
But with the pandemic affecting communities of all sizes, the folks at the MPO decided to give it a shot.
The first phase was weighing support among stakeholders — economic development professionals and elected officials — in the region. All seven boards of supervisors in the region approved resolutions supporting the creation of the district as a 504 nonprofit, and Gov. Kim Reynolds and Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, also lent their support.
According to MIPA’s website, the counties served by MIPA include Polk, Story, Warren, Jasper, Boone, Dallas and Marion.
Central Iowa was the only region of the state that didn’t have an economic development district, which meant it was missing out on some federal funding. The districts are often the first to receive EDA funding following major disasters, according to an informational packet provided by the MPO.
Nearly $62 million in EDA funding has been awarded in Iowa since 2018. Only $3.2 million came to Central Iowa, with the rest, nearly $58 million, going to other places in the state. Creating an economic development district is a requirement for qualifying for those funds.
Once MIPA was created, MPO officials went to the U.S. Economic Development Administration in September 2021 seeking approval of a designation.
“So we went from spring of 2020 saying maybe we should do something to having a designation application 18 months later,” said Gunnar Olson, public affairs manager for the MPO. “It took a few months, but we got our designation on Jan. 26, .”
The program became operational in April 2022, and Caleb Knutson was brought in to oversee the program as senior planner.
MIPA also has a board of directors made up of one representative from each member jurisdiction and two private sector representatives from each county. The cost of membership is 15 cents per capita paid on an annual basis.
What does it mean for member communities?
Olson said one benefit is establishing relationships with federal agencies.
“A lot of the federal agencies don’t have the time or capacity to have relationships with 89 jurisdictions [in the region], or 96 when you count the counties, let alone all their partners,” he said. “Now it becomes a two-way street where the feds are saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking to invest in such and such,’ and Caleb can say, ‘Oh, I know a good project out there.’ It’s a kind of matchmaking between local need and federal funding.”
MIPA will not be competing with other economic development groups in vying to attract new companies to the area, but rather it will be focused on bringing grant money to communities for infrastructure projects that can help a community be more attractive and competitive.
MIPA services include helping communities search for grants, grant writing assistance and ensuring communities have the necessary planning documentation to qualify for funds. That help can be an important economic development tool for communities, particularly smaller rural communities that may not have the staff or expertise, Knutson said.
“That’s the return on value that so many of the smaller community love because they didn’t even know there are these [grant] opportunities and they’re very grateful to have somebody help navigate them and show them where to focus on, what they need and how we can help them,” he said.
Nine months after it became operational, MIPA has already helped some communities receive grant money.
- Jasper County, $100,000 for various projects.
- City of Boone, $200,000 for wastewater treatment technology.
- City of Colfax, $400,000 for RV park and American with Disabilities Act compliant dock.
- City of Knoxville, $400,000 for facade improvements of downtown buildings.
- Marion County, funding for visit from economic development professionals for planning assistance.
Knutson said in his first three months on the job he tried to visit as many communities as he could to introduce himself and the services MIPA offers.
The needs vary by community. “It’s finding what they need and connecting into it,” Knutson said.
He said while there may be some crossover between communities’ economic development efforts, communities today have a better understanding of the benefit of regional collaboration.
“When you have so many communities so tied together, they’re competing against each other. But really if one succeeds the other succeeds,” Knutson said. “In old-school economic development, that wasn’t always the point of view.”
What others are saying
Brenda Dryer, senior vice president of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and chair of the MIPA board, said the needs of Ames are different from the needs of Maxwell or Nevada or Zearing, and MIPA can provide planning and grant making services on a regional level based on a community’s needs.
“I look at that access to potential funding as just one benefit,” she said. “The other is it provides additional economic development resources that some smaller communities, and even some of the larger ones, maybe it can enhance what they can provide.”
Dryer said MIPA can help access funds “we weren’t able to access as easily as we can now.”
“I think the benefits are broad and may look different for each of our communities,” she said. “The ability that a larger region can employ a team of people to have at the ready on these planning resources and grant writing resources, I think it’s a great thing.”
Dryer said MIPA only strengthens collaboration that is already taking place to make Central Iowa stronger.
“It just takes one look at our labor sheds to understand that our workforce moves among this region,” she said. “Ultimately, our businesses that are part of this region need us working together because we are so interconnected. Understanding and recognizing that one community may get a grant and another may not, we’re raising the overall quality of the whole region, whether it be our ability to have better infrastructure to attract additional businesses and industry, or if it’s community development.”
Carla Eysink, executive director of the Marion County Development Commission, said MIPA can help smaller communities that may have limited staff with limited expertise to search for and apply for grants.
“The best service it provides is that person who is either constantly feeding us with information about grant opportunities coming up, but also that person we can go to and bounce ideas off of where we might be able to find funding or just ideas for a project,” she said.
Marion County received funding through MIPA that helped bring in a team of four economic developers from around the country to meet with community leaders and help develop the next steps for sustainable planning for economic development.
Eysink said that while MIPA can help enhance regional collaboration, it’s still a work in progress.
“It’s hard in regions such as ours because you have the metro communities, and that functions very differently than those of us outside the metro, outside the beltway, so figuring out how the rural communities can better work together and how the rural communities and metro area communities can better work together can be a really powerful long-term outcome of this,” she said. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re getting to know each other and we’re working towards that.”
So far, 60 communities have signed up to participate in MIPA, and Eysink encouraged others to consider becoming a member.
“As economic development is approaching a more collaborative model, I think it will be important for communities to become involved because it’s only going to provide them with additional resources, additional knowledge and additional opportunities,” she said. “Yes, sometimes it’s not always nice to work together. It gets ugly at times, but the end results are usually excellent.”
Michael Crumb is a senior staff writer at Business Record. He covers economic development, transportation, energy & environment, culture, sales & marketing.