Brent Willett, CEcD is Executive Director of the Cultivation Corridor.
Last month Iowa’s economic development community gathered for the SMART Economic Development Conference in Des Moines, an annual event organized by Iowa’s investor-owned utilities which attracts economic development, government, business and political leaders to discuss job creation and retention efforts in our state.
So what? Every industry has a must-attend annual conference or two. What makes SMART unique are the collegial dynamics which comprise the industry it represents.
It’s a small industry, economic development. That claim may seem far-fetched at face value, considering that estimates suggest there are between 7,500 and 10,000 economic development organizations operating in the US today- but broken down, that’s 150 to 200 groups per state before adjusting for population – and Iowa is 30th at 3,090,016 [2013 US Census].
The 99-county math is easy: there are, on average, just a handful of economic development professionals for miles around in most parts of Iowa. Join this weak density of practitioners with the transient nature of many rural economic development jobs - figures are hard to come by, but in many small communities the local economic development job is turned over regularly as qualified practitioners find better hours and better money in the private sector - and you’ve got a perfect storm of conditions conducive to a challenging sense of isolation felt by many in the industry.
Economic development in Iowa is a field in which many practitioners are one of only a small handful [or, in very small communities, the only] person administering professional job attraction and retention services in a city, county, or even cluster of counties.
What if you were the only person doing your job for 50 miles? Who would you lean on, learn from and engage with to assuage the challenges of a project or stresses of time management? Who would you contact in times of crisis and celebrate with in times of achievement? How would you find your industry mentor? For economic developers throughout the state and across the country, the answer is often counterintuitive: with a competitor.
The field’s diminutive size requires that not only must small community economic developers often function without benefit of an industry colleague nearby, but all practitioners must rely on complex mutual relationships which involve at-times intense competition as well as collegial dynamics. In order to engage in true peer-to-peer exchanges of ideas and challenges, economic developers must often look to an industry colleague elsewhere who, at the end of the day, is fundamentally a professional competitor. It all adds up to a profoundly complicated yet exceedingly tight-knit professional network for Iowa’s economic developers.
Many of us report to or serve on boards and commissions comprised of competitors, and we know it works. Board ethics [not to mention common courtesy] suggests that you check your competitive fire for your board colleague at the door and find common ground to work together on, relative to the organization or project at hand.
Economic developers are forced to simply accelerate this dynamic. Take, for example, the Professional Developers of Iowa board of directors, a group I was privileged to lead as president in 2012. PDI is a consortium of more than 300 economic developers throughout Iowa and its board is comprised of practitioners from throughout the state- all of whom, on one level or another, are fierce competitors for the same prize: investment and jobs in Iowa. Despite such a unique board room dynamic, PDI has been the premier issues, education and networking organization for economic developers in Iowa thanks to effective volunteer leadership for decades.
Central Iowa practitioners are a bit more fortunate in terms of colleague access. Concentrated population dynamics make collegial density much higher in the Cultivation Corridor region. For example, the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Metro Practioners Group meets six times a year and routinely has 40-50 economic developers in attendance from throughout the region discussing issues and generally commiserating with each other about resources, opportunities and projects. While many in the room are technically competitors, the convergence of government, higher education, workforce and other practitioners who are a part of a larger economic development ecosystem in the Corridor helps produce a well-rounded discussion and group resource.
As within many industries, commonalities abound in the economic development peer-to-peer relationship - common public policy priorities, infrastructure needs, community college workforce development programming and much more binds the industry together. But it is where natural ties that bind begin to break down that the industry finds a way to support its own- even from a county or two over.