Getting Started

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Pat Baird, CEO of AEGON USA, has very concisely outlined the need for a regional approach to economic development, in a piece published today, November 1, 2009 in The Gazette.  That piece will also be featured in the Corridor Business Journal.

As a place to get started in the discussion, I think Pat’s words set the stage.

On Tuesday, November 3rd, a forum will be held at Kirkwood’s Center for Continuing Education exploring the merits of regional economic development.   Great news.   It’s time for a coordinated economic development strategy for the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor.

As a 30 year employee of AEGON USA, I’ve seen communities where we have operations become transformed into regional heavyweights simply by changing how they think and react to economic development opportunities.  With all the advantages we have in this area, we can do the same.

AEGON USA has increased its workforce in Cedar Rapids from 800 jobs in 1993 to just over 3,600 today.  While we employ over 12,000 nationally in cities such as Baltimore, Louisville, Los Angeles and others, Cedar Rapids is by far our largest site.  The costs are reasonable here, the workforce is well educated and the work ethic is second to none.  In addition, the State of Iowa and its secondary educational institutions have done a great job of supporting the insurance industry.

While many of our employees come from the area, as I do, we still recruit many nationally and even internationally.  Those of us who live here know the advantages:  a great quality of life, outstanding educational institutions, short commutes, safe neighborhoods, Big 10 sports and close proximity to countless recreational and cultural opportunities.

Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, together with the surrounding communities in between, are indeed all very different places.  When we recruit new employees from outside the area, we sell not only the collective advantages of life within the Corridor, but the uniqueness of each community.  These differences among our local communities are very much a positive.  It is rare that one of our local communities doesn’t fit a prospective employee’s needs.

Because commute times are relatively short, we have learned over the years that workforce demands can also be met by the success of other companies.  When we learn of a new company adding new jobs or relocating employees from other locations, we know that spouses and other family members of those new hires present us with additional workforce alternatives.  A win for Iowa City is a win for those of us growing a business in Cedar Rapids, and visa versa.

Correspondingly, flood recovery for this area is also a direct form of economic development.  During this past year, I have had the privilege to serve the State of Iowa on the Ijobs Board, which awarded both competitive and noncompetitive grant monies to communities to jump start flood recovery projects as well as to provide economic stimulus.  The Board had a “geographic diversity” mandate to spread competitive grant monies throughout the state.    It is important to note that the Board, in achieving this mandate, examined the State by quadrant, and not by city or county.

Other communities where AEGON USA conducts its business have recognized economic development has gone regional, and some have even gone so far as to regionalize their government.  The City of Louisville, in particular, has regionalized their government solely for purposes of promoting economic development.   While no one is promoting this idea for our area at this time, it illustrates the thinking and efforts of other communities with which we compete to attract new employers and/or encourage the expansion of our existing employers.

It is for these reasons that we endorse and will support the initiative to develop a coordinated economic development strategy for the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Corridor.  The fact that somewhere on a map are dotted lines which divide the region into cities and counties is totally irrelevant to business and to economic development.    The attributes we share in this region are far more valuable than those things that divide us.   It’s time we focus the efforts of our local Chambers of Commerce, economic development groups and academic institutions on these attributes.  It is also time our local governments form a collaboration among themselves and with the regional economic development groups to ensure they are constructive partners in regional economic development.  It is also as important never to allow the parochial interests defined by these dotted lines on a map to become a deterrent to what is right for the Corridor.  If we accomplish this, we all win.

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Getting Started”

  1. Don’t forget the food! If, for example, every household in Johnson and Linn Counties were to redirect just $10 of their existing weekly food budgets (not new money) toward buying some local food, whether at a Farmers Market, a CSA, or just eggs from the farmer down the road, it would keep nearly $76 million in the Corridor economy every year.

    The math:
    JoCo Households: 54K
    LinnCo Households: 92K
    146K x $10 x 52 weeks = $75,920,000

  2. Let me preface this by noting that Priority One and Iowa City Area Development seem to work well together. However, they, and we, can work ever better in a regionally cooperative manner.

    While working for Congressman Leach from 1997-2000, our office talked to the Chambers in the district about the importance of regionalization of efforts for economic development.

    I know from working for the City of Cedar Rapids from 2002-2006, we struggled with the concept of regionalization because of the differences in needs for our federal asks, though the congressional offices requested a combined effort, if not ask.

    We (CR & IC) were able to gather for combined trips to DC to visit our representatives, but there were still quite separate agendas during individual visits with legislators and staff. This is not a criticism of either the Chambers or the cities, but a simple recognition of the situations that existed at the time.

    Meanwhile, our individual communities also identified different needs regarding economic development because of the difference in resources — a more developed private sector in the Cedar Rapids metro area (keyed by Quaker Oats, General Mills, Penford, Cargill, ADM, Rockwell Collins, Alliant, and Aegon), versus a more developed public sector (keyed by the University of Iowa) in the Iowa City/Coralville area.

    Cedar Rapids’ economic engine is not easily “exported” to Johnson County. Likewise, the economic engine of the University of Iowa is not easily exportable to Linn County. One way we can effectively regionalize our efforts is to find ways to capitalize on organizations such as Diversity Focus.

    I am proud to have worked for the City of Cedar Rapids while this body was created, and fortunate enough to again work with this Corridor-based organization to produce for them the first ever diversity climate study.

    This study offered both combined results and individual results for each county. There were many obvious differences between the results by county, but still many similarities.

    The end result was that this truly regional entity has both the kind of bond necessary, and the type of commitment to mission to truly carry out this mission.

    So, what connections do we have in the corridor to grow from?

    1. Medical technology/provision of high-quality health care: The Commonwealth Fund ranked the State of Iowa as 2nd best in the country for quality of health care. There are many reasons for this, but to be sure, with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, both Mercy Medical Centers, and St. Luke’s, the corridor stands atop the state as far as medical technology and the provision of high-quality health care. How can we leverage this? Maybe by creating a technology corridor-based medical district?

    Agribusiness/food processing: The most recent information I could find indicates food processing accounts for $5 billion in Iowa’s economy (gross state product). No doubt, because of the sheer number of food processing firms and facilities in Cedar Rapids, we are responsible for a significant amount of that figure.
    Why couldn’t we work in a cooperative venture between private businesses and internationally-respected (agriculturally speaking) Iowa State University and the University of Iowa to create a one-of-a-kind biotechnology/food processing research facility and business incubator as economic development?

    Advanced Manufacturing: Rockwell Collins is the largest private employer in the corridor and is a leader in high-technology manufacturing. However, there are plenty of other companies who use advanced manufacturing techniques, many of them suppliers to the larger manufacturers in the region.

    Ultimately, the local governmental entities will have to, as Pat wrote, cross the dotted lines and make true collaborations. However, until the business interests, unions, and state and federal representatives create the proper incentive for them to collaborate more closely (or disincentive for not acting in this fashion), and substantively and inventively bring private business and unions to the table to create a unified Technology Corridor economic development plan, the status quo will be maintained, and this is not acceptable.

    I sat on an state ad hoc committee regarding emergency management, and we divided the state into regional entities to discuss division of resources. Chuck Peters has discussed something very similar. Finding a way to meld local accountability with regional potential on all fronts…public, private, large and small businesses, K-12 and higher education alike…will help determine the future of the growth of our region, its workforce, corporate bottom lines, and our collective success.

    2020 is almost here. Will we be there to meet it with a celebration and dreams fulfilled, or with unfulfilled potential? Let’s work together, truly together, and live the dream into reality.

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