Regional Economic Development

Food and leadership

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor.  Follow him @brent_willett.

‘Without food…all other components of social justice are meaningless.’ – Dr. Norman Borlaug

Ask yourself whether you believe the United States is the world’s leader in agricultural research and innovation. We have to be, right? For a country that produces 2015.10.14_quote and exports more food than any other, a nation that has engineered historically consequential breakthrough technologies like genetically modified crops, the answer would seem to be obvious. We’re tops when it comes to ag research, yes?


In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the global leader in public spending on agricultural research, and they haven’t looked back. In fact, China is expected to surpass the U.S. in total sovereign R&D funding by 2020. The Chinese achieved this staggering coup by tripling their investment in ag research over the course of five years. Brazil and India have both dramatically increased their spending in the field, and other countries are following suit. Meanwhile, U.S. investments in ag research are down 16 percent in ten years.

This crisis of global leadership on the part of the U.S. was brought into stark relief recently -- if unintentionally -- when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released her policy paper on rural economic development, “Plan for a Vibrant Rural America”.  In it, Clinton advocates ‘strengthen[ing] USDA grant programs'. What’s missing in the paper -- and, more importantly, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign as a whole -- is a broader acknowledgement of enormous importance of federal investment in agricultural research and innovation in America and who’s got a plan to ensure our country can return to the forefront of ag innovation in the coming decades. 

For every federal dollar spent on agricultural research in the U.S., nearly $13 is spent on medical research. The USDA’s research budget is just shy of $2.4 billion. The National Institute for Health’s is more than $30 billion. From 1990 to 2012, NIH research funding rose 132 percent. National Science Foundation funding doubled in the same time period.  In those same two decades, USDA saw an increase of just 21 percent and its R&D budget today amounts to less than 10 percent of National Institutes of Health’s (NIH).

Of course, the work of the NIH and the National Science Foundation is incredibly important and they deserve every resource available. But a global population increase which will see 9.5 billion people on earth by 2050 demands that we produce more food in the next 35 years than we have in the last 10,000 combined. Shouldn’t we be talking about how the U.S. can and must again be the global center of innovation to meet these challenges? 

The Clinton proposal comes on the heels of a report issued by the Charles Valentine Riley 2015.10.14_quote3 Memorial Foundation titled ‘Pursuing a Unifying Message’, which summarizes an April 2015 discussion among 23 leaders of universities others on the need for reversing an alarming lack of federal investment in food, agricultural and natural resources research[1]. The report calls for investments in agricultural research to be ‘escalated tremendously’ at U.S.D.A. and suggests in sobering fashion that ‘[s]ome nonprofit entities…appear to be funding applied and basic science in food and agriculture at more aggressive levels than the nation’s investment [my emphasis].’

Come again?  NGAs alone are outpacing the world’s most advanced economy in terms of funding allocations for food research? What year is this? Next to defense, fewer responsibilities are more fundamental to a nation-state than its investment in and capability to feed its people today and in the future. Guns and butter indeed.

The enormous projected global population faces the threat of an inadequate food supply thanks in part to diminishing land and water resources. The amount of farmland available to feed each global citizen will degrade from more than an acre per person in 1990 to less than a third of an acre by 2050 and fully half of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity inside 30 years. Half.

Global food supply is further imperiled by climate change; science-based evidence is indisputable that our planet’s climate is changing and climate change has already begun to affect crop outcomes in parts of the world.

We know that at the solution’s nexus of the massive challenges mankind faces in the next 50 years -- namely nutrition, energy and environmental sustainability in the face of a burgeoning global population -- is agricultural innovation. Crucially, agricultural and food innovation has historically and necessarily had a dancing partner in the federal government based on the high capital intensity and prolonged nature of much of the field’s research.

National governments will persist as partners in the field and will contribute to solving a pending food crisis which Iowa State University President Steven Leath has called the ‘greatest challenge in human history’. The question is whether the United States is one of those governments.

Three years ago, the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology recommended increasing federal agricultural research by $700 million. Almost nothing happened. The 2014 Farm Bill offered a pittance, just $200 million [which must be matched 2015.10.14_quote2new by other funds to be released] in increased funding. Talk about cognitive dissonance. 

In May, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommended that the U.S. double its investment in agricultural and food research in ten years. This is an exceptionally important recommendation to Iowa. Since I’m supposed to be blogging about regional economic development and need to get back in my lane a bit, countless studies suggest that for every dollar spent on agricultural research, more than $20 in economic activity is created.

On October 14-16, the peerless World Food Prize Foundation brought leaders from around the globe to Des Moines to its Borlaug Dialogue to discuss food security and technology and to honor another deserving World Food Prize Laureate in Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of Bangladesh. 

The Dialogue, of course, is held in honor of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the man credited with saving a billion lives thanks to his pioneering research in plant genetics. This celebration of one of the most important men in world history and a model for future change agents compels us each year to consider the future. 

In the face of unnerving statistics about our country’s anemic and in-reverse investment in agricultural research, we must ask: will the next Norman Borlaug change the world from a lab in Iowa, or from one in Beijing?


[1] Iowa State University is a lead issuer of the report along with the Riley Foundation.   Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, Dean of the ISU College of Agriculture, was a key contributor to the report.


Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor.  Contact him:

Human: 515-360-1732

Digital: / @brent_willett /



36,001 steps in the right direction

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.

Earlier this month, Iowa State University reported another record year; 36,001 students are enrolled for the 2015-16 academic year. Of the six primary colleges on campus, only one reported a dip in undergraduate enrollment at all (and that dip was a total Beardshear_Hallof four students). The growth in enrollments at Iowa’s largest university has been dramatic -- it’s up by more than 7,300 students since 2010, a more than 20 percent increase in five years. 

The huge increase turns on its head a national trend which has seen a -3.5percent erosion of enrollments at ‘degree granting post-secondary institutions’ [which includes both four- and two-year institutions] in the same time period. 

Depending upon the research that you subscribe to, there are between 15-20 generally recognized ‘innovation clusters’ in the U.S. Harvard economist Michael Porter is perhaps most regularly credited with researching and memorializing the cluster model, and his US Cluster Mapping Project is one of the richest- and easiest to use- geographic cluster-based economic databases publicly available today. Innovation clusters are self-sustaining economic ecosystems with three key ingredients:

  1. A strong concentration of companies and capital oriented around an industry, or, “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field” [Porter, 1998];
  2. A robust pipeline of qualified human capital supplying those institutions with talent to feed innovation and production; and
  3. At least on Tier I research institution that is a global leader in the field referenced in item #1.   

Silicon Valley is the country’s and the world’s best-known innovation cluster.  The North Carolina Research Triangle is another brand-name cluster.  But other lesser-known clusters are functioning at a high level in the Twin Cities [medical devices], Kansas City [animal sciences], New York/New Jersey [pharmaceuticals]- this list goes on. 

Yet- and this is the very premise of the Cultivation Corridor- no single region has firmly established itself as the US’ preferred destination for capital [see #1], talent [#2] and research [#3] in the field of agbioscience and agtechnology. And because of the unmatched research and instructional capabilities in the field offered at Iowa State as well as the innovation infrastructure represented by a rapidly-expanding ISU Research Park, we are positioned as well as any presumable competition to confirm Central Iowa as the agbio and agtech capital of the world. We believe strongly that as the university’s capabilities grow, so grows the competitiveness of Iowa communities seeking ag-based investment and talent.

Setting aside the cluster model and research institution fitness as one of its core asset drivers for a moment, the health and growth of a land grant institution for the economic region in which it sits is of vital importance to overall economic growth prospects for both its companies and economic institutions and for its residents. According to Brookings, individuals between the ages of 30 and 50 who did not attend college could expect to earn less than $30,000 per year. Those whose highest level of educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree earned just under $60,000 per year [an advanced degree-holder can expect over $80,000].

Too, the availability of quality two-year post-secondary education is of vital importance to a region’s economic institutions and its residents. Over a lifetime, the earnings of an associate’s degree recipient are roughly $170,000 higher than those of a high school graduate. [Brookings]

Prevailing discourse for at least the last 25 years stresses the university's place as a principal player in a global system increasingly driven by information, knowledge and ideas. We have said before that there will be winners and there will be losers in the battle for capital, talent and research in the burgeoning agricultural innovation era ahead. To possess one of the world’s finest schools in the field of agricultural bioscience and technology in our region -- and to witness that university grow in the past five years at a pace 11 times inflation and fully half as rapidly as the S&P 500 during one of the strongest bull markets in history -

Continue reading "36,001 steps in the right direction" »

Stop! In the name of jobs

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.

For as long as anyone can remember, economic developers in Iowa have touted our state’s stability of government and economy as an important second tier decision motivator [after Iowa_Flag_Golden_Dome_small taxes, workforce and infrastructure] for companies considering locating or expanding here.

The argument has been that compared with a number of peer states and regions, Iowa offers some of the most predictable, practical and civil state governmental machinery. Too, the state’s economic performance, owing to a diversified economy led by agriculture and manufacturing, has grown steadily if not spectacularly. It generally has outpaced the U.S. average for at least the past ten years. (State GDP grew by 2.9 percent in 2014, about double the national rate, and per capita income growth was No. 4 nationally in 2013 -- the fifth straight year of top 25 finishes in the category.) 

Iowa’s economy, it’s been said many times, is rarely too hot and rarely too cold, like a mythical baked potato. 

The stoutness of Iowa’s economy is an obvious selling point for would-be job creators in our state, but the political stability argument can be nearly as consequential.  Company leaders and boards of directors rendering decisions on the large-scale deployment of capital inherently consider the political environment into which their investment is flowing. This occurs at varying levels of formality and intensity from organization to organization,  from subjective speculation around the meeting table to so-called ‘full-cost’ accounting, which seeks to quantify largely subjective matters like political climate and assign a value to be incorporated into project cost matrices.

Iowans tend to vote their tendencies for divided government. From 1992-2013, the state had a ostensible ‘unified’ or ‘trifecta’ government [one where both legislative chambers and the executive branch are all controlled by the same party] only six times, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Governors in Iowa average ten years in office, longer than most other non-term-limited states. And a passing glimpse at our federal delegation reminds us that until the 2015 retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowans sent one Republican and one Democrat to the Senate for 30 straight years -- the third longest streak in history.

At a time when a single party controls all branches of government in 31 [!] states and nearly half of all legislatures have veto-proof majorities, Iowa is one of just three [!] states with a divided legislature. Lawmakers here have historically been more than happy to point out that in the face of such bipartisan power balances, they have made a conscious effort to avoid Washington-style partisan chaos.

And, largely, they’ve been right. For decades, Iowa’s political process has proven a national example of how a politically-divided state can nevertheless produce budgets, policy and leadership in a deeply bipartisan and civilized way. This track record of political efficiency and pragmatism has proven valuable, as companies routinely cite Iowa’s political environment as a net positive for doing business here.

But now we might mess it up.

Despite what is clearly the better historical judgment of both Iowa voters and their representatives, Iowa, following several split-power legislative sessions full of rancor which have lasted into well into June, faces the very real prospect of a 2016 session more DC than DSM; more cherry blossom than corn cob.

A 2015 session, during which deep interparty disagreement about education funding sucked all the oxygen out of the proverbial room, produced very little in the way of meaningful economic development legislation. In fact, the highest-profile piece of economic development legislation -- a tax credit for biorenewable chemical production in Iowa -- went down in a tragicomedy of partisan maneuvering.

Ask any legislator, bureaucrat or lobbyist to handicap next year’s session and he or she will tell you that the unresolved education funding issue threatens to produce an unusually hyper-partisan environment under the golden dome in 2016. That’s not the Iowa way.

The education issue is incredibly important to Iowa and rightly deserves the keen attention of Iowa legislators, but so is the process by which our political leaders in all three branches of government ultimately find agreement. 

We’ve seen what sorts of monumental results legislative and executive bipartisanship can produce in this state, and very recently. The 2013 Iowa General Assembly was perhaps one the state’s most productive ever, with massive property tax reform, a health care overhaul and education reform bills all reaching the governor’s desk and receiving his signature. Such a session of accomplishment proffers economic development professionals across the state sublime material to discuss with clients. Not only, so the narrative goes, do our political leaders in Iowa achieve big things in the do-nothing Congressional era, but they do it despite a narrowly divided government. That’s the Iowa way. 

Have a look at our state flag and remember that the blue color of the left-hand vertical stripe is meant to represent loyalty, justice and truth and that the red color of the right-hand vertical stripe is meant to represent strength. Remind your legislator between now and January that others are watching how they do their jobs and how they interface publicly with their partisan counterparts and that they can be faithful to both the exertion of strength through party loyalty and deliver justice to their constituents in the form of negotiated, enduring results following a respectful debate.

The next job creation deal could depend on it.


Airports matter

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor

Last year, I traveled to the Raleigh-Durham region on business; the place is a hotbed for biotechnology economic development and I was in town to learn about the region’s approach and to visit with a handful of companies. 

At the heart of the North Carolina Research Triangle, which is perhaps the world’s most successful example of regional, cluster-based economic development, Raleigh-Durham and the surrounding area has for decades come to define success for how regional economies can leverage the public, private and academic sectors to produce globally-competitive economic ecosystems in places where before, little in the way of innovation existed. 

The story of the Triangle, to completely generalize a 50-year transformation of an economy for brevity’s sake, goes something like this: throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the furniture and textile industries which had dominated the Carolinas' economy for a century experienced marked decline.  In response, public and private sector leaders worked with the North Carolina Legislature to craft and fund new tools and institutions to enable the region and state to pivot from furniture and textiles to the development of a high-value bioeconomy. It’s been a fantastic success.

The Triangle has found success not only in producing an environment that supports innovation at a scale few regions in the world can compete with, but in managing its reputation as a global economic powerhouse with a level of precision and sophistication seen few other places.

This point was driven home to me the moment I stepped off the jet bridge at Raleigh-Durham International Airport [RDU].  “Welcome to the Research Triangle” read a massive glass and steel sign adorning a highly modern terminal.

Research Triangle branding was present throughout the airport [and, indeed, the region], which was nice, but that’s not necessarily my point. RDU’s design and technology modernity -- its Terminal 1 was updated in 2012, and Terminal 2 is slated for upgrades -- joined with the ubiquity of Research Triangle regional messaging (those signs don’t say ‘Welcome to Raleigh-Durham’, remember). Together, they send a loud and clear message to passengers- particularly business passengers who comprise upwards of 45% of domestic air travelers: you’ve entered a place of global business. From the moment I entered RDU to the moment I jumped in a cab, the message was clear. A heck of a way to start a trip if I’m a business person considering this region for investment, I thought.

Airports, by their very nature, play an outsized role in shaping outside public opinion about a region and a state.  Airport users are captive; if you are flying commercially into a community, you’ve got [with few exceptions] one place to enter and exit: that region’s airport. This means airports, fundamentally, offer an opportunity to contribute mightily to the writing of the critical first chapter and last chapter of a book of impressions for visiting decision-makers. There is a reason that cash-strapped airport authorities like those in Atlanta ($6 billion upgrade project), Las Vegas ($2.4 billion), Philadelphia ($5 billion), New York ($7.5 billion), Dallas ($2 billion) and Los Angeles ($4.1 billion) are nevertheless finding ways to add runways, renovate terminals and upgrade amenities in a modern-day transportation infrastructure boom. 

Airports matter, and leaders on both the north and south anchors of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor understand that. In Ames, the city has approved a plan to build a new terminal at Ames Municipal Airport, which may be the only airport in the country that abuts a major university research park- a major competitive advantage for the entire region. The Ames Economic Development Commission is at work raising funds to add a new storage hanger to the airfield as another component of the major Ames Municipal overhaul. 

And the proposed new terminal at Des Moines International- slated, funding-dependent, for a 2024 opening- offers the Central Iowa region another generational opportunity to redefine its front door to the global community. The $400 million project would be one of the largest in the state’s history -- a price tag befitting the opportunity it represents. 

As thousands of Central Iowans continue their work to grow and recast our region as a truly global one, the attention many are paying to the way in which our global customers and colleagues enter our region and experience its first and last impressions, is apt.

The workforce generation that will save the world

- Brent Willett, CEcD is Executive Director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor

By now, the figures may be familiar.

  • The first: a global population of 9 or 10 billion by 2050, a 22 to 30 percent increase from today’s 7 billion.
  • A second: that in order to satisfy the skyrocketing protein and energy demands of this global population, we are going to have to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have as a human race in the last 10,000 combined.
  • A third: astonishing global energy challenges are in store as we face a two-fold increase in global energy demand, along with population growth trends as the three most powerful drivers of our energy today – demand, supply, and environment effects – undergo forecasted massive change
  • Fourth: environmental challenges which make the word 'unprecedented' somehow inadequate are in store as we experience and address the effects of global climate change in earnest as up to 5 billion of the 9 billion on earth potentially experience ‘an entirely new climate' by 2050.

As we stare down the monumental challenges facing the global community in the next 35 years, we agree as a global population on very little. From the indispensability of genetically modified crops to address coming nutrition challenges to the role of man in the changing climate, decision makers and everyday people across the planet are participating in an extraordinarily rigorous debate about the future of our world. It's enough to make you toss your head back and laugh -- or cry -- at the tenor and the levity of it all. 

However, in the midst of a ferocious debate, an emerging accord is coming into focus: agricultural science and technology lies at the solution’s nexus of each of the three major challenges we face moving forward -- food, energy and environmental sustainability. And that’s where young people come in.

This year, the millennial workforce generation [generally defined as those born between 1980 and 1997] will surpass the Baby Boomer generation as the largest in America at just over 75 million and growing. And they know what they want in a job.

If we join an emerging consensus that the role of agriculture in the coming decades is perhaps the most important in the world with what we are coming to know about the next workforce generation, something awfully promising pops up.

A 2015 study found that when it comes to careers, the top millennial priorities included their growth and development as an employee while -- and this is the key -- making a positive contribution to their local communities and society. Another report which surveyed more than 1,700 currently enrolled university students spanning three generations found that students consider making a positive social impact on the world as a result of their work more important than having children, a prestigious career, being wealthy or even being a community leader. 

The same report found that 45 percent of millennials would take a 15 percent pay cut for a job that makes a social or environmental impact.  Even taking the latter figure with a grain of salt -- we were all 22 and ready to vow poverty and solve the world’s problems once -- if it’s only half right: would a quarter of your generational colleagues spin off a significant chunk of change for social good?  It’s a bit of a new paradigm. 

Here’s a new generation whose members are deeply interested in food and where it comes from, who have been heavily influenced by technology since birth and who cares -- albeit a bit choppily -- about the future of environment. Enter the future of agriculture.

As the face of production agriculture continues to change, transformative social and economic opportunities are emerging. Technological innovation has helped spur farm consolidation -- far fewer people can now manage much larger production operations -- and helped create new ag jobs away from the proverbial growing field, a trend which many argue will more than offset the contraction in traditional farm jobs. Farmers are generally getting older; the average U.S. farmer is now 57 years old and over half of U.S. farmland is owned by those over the age of 55. Meantime, agbioscience and agtechnology job trends are skyrocketing. While the profile of those tending the land is expected to trend younger in the coming decades, most of the job growth in the ag sector will be in the office or laboratory.

From major companies like John Deere, DuPont Pioneer and Climate Corporation to successful start-ups like Ames-based AgSolver, high-value jobs in the agtechnology and agbioscience sectors are driving growth in the agriculture job market in exponential fashion relative to the previous generation of ag job creation.  Ag technology -- both hardware and software research and development and agbioscience, including plant science and biology -- are not only exploding fields of opportunity for today and tomorrow’s graduates, but they both possess those two characteristics so important to the millennial generation’s perception of a good job. 

Cross-pollinate technology and a positive role in addressing global food, energy and environmental challenges and what do you get? One in agriculture. And an ideal job profile for a many a millennial. 

Central Iowa is better positioned to leverage this looming trend into high-value ag job creation and young workforce interest in the field than many parts of the world, owing to the convergence of blossoming private sector opportunities in the industry in the region and Iowa State University’s position as a leading ag school globally.  It’s already happening; ISU reported job placement rates ranging from 98.6 percent to 100 percent in programs such as ag business, agronomy, ag systems tech and industrial technology. And the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences breaks enrollment records year after year.  DMACC, too, is spinning more and more graduates well-prepared for jobs in the ag field into the region's workforce.

We all stand on the precipice of a golden era of agricultural science and technology- one which, fortunately for them, offers fantastic career opportunities for millenials and fortunately for everyone else offers solutions to both global economic and social challenges we are staring down in the ensuing decades.

There will be winners and there will be losers in the chase for the investment, talent and research which simultaneously supports and follows advances in the field, and we are certainly not the only state and region jockeying for position, but I’d rather be us than them any day, thanks in no small part to the promise of the newest workforce generation which is beginning to see agriculture in a new light. 

Ethics and the deal: When disaster creates an opportunity

  1. Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of the Cultivation Corridor

In 2008, the International Economic Development Council [IEDC] established a practitioner Code of Ethics "to ensure a high ethical standard for those involved in economic development."  Several years later, IEDC moved to require ethics training as a condition for all candidates for its industry certification and re-certification program, where it still stands as a certification condition.

It was an industry first. Modern professional economic development is a fairly young industry -- most point to the founding of local industrial recruitment organizations in response to a contraction of manufacturing expansion in the 1970s and the rolling bank savings and loan crises of the mid-1980s as the industry’s jumping off points. For a couple of decades, economic development was defined almost exclusively as a cutthroat industrial recruitment endeavor -- the aggressive courting of external capital and jobs into a defined local or regional jurisdiction. From where that capital and those jobs came -- whether from across the globe or in a neighboring community, and the corresponding ethical underpinnings of how the deal was done -- was less a topic of concern than today.

Today, most states, Iowa included, maintain policies for access to state economic development financial assistance which typically require that a project originate from outside the state or be an expansion of an existing facility in the company's current community. In other words, the state is fundamentally not interested in providing financial incentives for relocations from one Iowa community to another. This is extremely sound and extremely necessary policy. 

The state’s policy position has begun to trickle down to local incentives policy. A handful of regions, including the Des Moines region, maintain some level of anti-piracy protocol which typically requires the sign-off of the home community prior to any other community in the region's economic development organization approving of local assistance to a company considering a relocation from one regional community to another. The One Corridor Agreement by and between Cerro Gordo County, City of Clear Lake and City of Mason City -- the latter two communities which once considered themselves deep rivals for economic development projects despite their immediate geographic proximity, now provides for a clear and cooperative project management process for any project considering both communities or one involving a potential relocation from one community to the other. In another instance, leaders in Iowa’s Creative Corridor are working to craft an agreement by and between the communities in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City region.

But while intra-state competition is often governed by cooperative piracy policy in Iowa, at any level outside that, you had better believe competition is as fierce and ruthless as ever; and it should be. 

But where does an economic development organization or practitioner draw the competitive line, particularly as it relates to preying on weakened game?  The IEDC ethics code conspicuously avoids any mention of competitive behavior between local organizations or states, and probably for good reason. The dynamics and decision-making triggers for any multi-site project are so varied so as to be virtually infinite. Accounting for them all and providing behavior guidance would be virtually impossible. The closest IEDC gets to wading into competition ethics is a disclaimer attached to its ethics code: “There may be circumstances where the board may choose to interpret and apply this code to a particular event such as a man-made or natural disaster.” 

So where is the line? 

Am I within the boundaries of professional decorum if I make an inquiry to pitch my region to a company in a state currently under natural duress, like a hurricane, based on the impact such trauma has created on that state or region’s near- and mid-term competitiveness? No, probably not; acts of God affecting a competitive community are generally treated with a great deal of forbearance by economic developers.

Am I within those same boundaries of decorum if I embark on such an inquiry with a company in a state under man-made duress, like a debt or political crisis?  Yes, usually. 

Our friends in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Arkansas and South Carolina, to name a few, have created for themselves a handful of major man-made disasters of late. They have managed them in both effective and ineffective ways as it relates to the eventual impact on a state’s reputation for business-friendliness for the job creation projects and investments every state in the union is chasing. 

Illinois? A fiscal basket case with a dash of corruption. States like Iowa and regions like Central Iowa love to compete with Illinois. It is perfectly within the boundaries of professional competition to demonstrate to our clients considering the Land of Lincoln that the crushing debt load the state currently acknowledges, and the unfunded liability load it doesn't acknowledge, as a pronounced competitive disadvantage. More debt means more taxes, particularly corporate taxes, in the future. That ought to be considered a tremendous competitive disadvantage when compared to Iowa’s historically sound fiscal [and low, low debt per capita ranking] position.  And that’s before we even start talking about political corruption [four of the last seven [!] Illinois governors have gone to prison]. Oh, and a couple of weeks ago Illinois eliminated all economic development incentives for businesses as part of a plan to address a $3 billion budget deficit.

But what to do when the man-made disaster isn’t as cut and dried, from an ethical perspective, as a preventable state budget calamity?

Indiana, Michigan and Arkansas all have come under intense criticism from their own state’s businesses for social policies and policy proposals related how same-sex couples may or may not be treated both by the state tax code and by their fellow citizens [IEDC Ethics Code item #9: Professional economic developers shall assure that all economic development activities are conducted with equality of opportunity for all segments of the community without regard to race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, political affiliation, disability, age, marital status, or socioeconomic status].

In perhaps the most high-profile move, e-commerce giant Angie’s List announced in March it would shelve plans for a major expansion in Indianapolis over its opposition to an Indiana ‘religious freedom’ law which many interpreted to permit discrimination against LGBT individuals and couples. [After a national uproar, the law has been largely repealed, but Angie’s List has maintained that it will not expand in Indianapolis.]

Governors and legislative leaders in Michigan and Arkansas have also in recent months taken up controversial legislation relating to the treatment of same-sex individuals and couples, have been lambasted by their business lobbies for it, and largely have retreated with plenty of damage done to their states' relationships with some of their largest employers.  

What’s an economic developer in another state to do in a case like this?  [Hypothetically] Pick up the phone to Angie’s List and those businesses like it?  Probably so. Political disasters are by definition man-made, and almost always by definition avoidable. While in most cases it is largely unproductive to craft a pitch to a company focused on a narrow piece of state social policy, controversy over such a policy could create an opening for a broader conversation calling into question one state’s responsiveness to the needs of its business community and its ability to manage its national and global reputation as a place to live and work when compared to my state. 

Occasionally, man-made political disasters which hold the potential to affect investment and job creation decision-making in another state demand a measured approach. Take, for example, the controversy leaders in South Carolina are currently embroiled in over the display of the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of that state’s Capitol.  Certainly, were this a confined issue founded on a purely political grounds, it would be ripe for inclusion in a state-to-state social/cultural comparison.  But it isn’t; while controversy has swirled around South Carolina’s Confederate flag for years [in 2000, the was moved from flying atop the Capitol to a war memorial on its grounds- something only a superlegislative majority can compel], the current controversy has at its basis the unthinkable mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.  Any decent economic developer- or human being- wouldn’t fathom exploiting a controversy with such a tragedy at its nexus. 

And so, as in most industries, gray area abounds for economic developers all over the country and the world as it relates to capitalizing on the competition’s weakness.  With so much at stake -- jobs, capital, tax base, community pride -- the actions of a local, regional or state-level economic developer in navigating complex ethical challenges are pronounced and are broadly relevant to the community he or she represents.

One is the loneliest number

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.

Why Iowa needs to think like an oil company

- Brent Willett, CEcD is Executive Director of the Cultivation Corridor.

In its first quarter earnings rollout on April 30, oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. revealed that its refining and chemicals units- think lubricants and chemical compounds used to produce things like plastic- together represented 48% of its profits in the first three months of 2015.

In 2014 those units represented just 19 percent of profits [oil and gas production made up the rest]. Across the pond, France’s Total SA, Europe’s largest refiner, said its first quarter refining and chemicals income improved three-fold while production earnings plummeted 56%. Similar trends jumped off earnings pages of oil companies across the globe. 

What’s going on here?  And what does it have to do with economic development in Iowa?

As oil production earnings continue a not-so-slow-motion collapse- oil prices have lost half their value since August- an emerging bright spot for the industry has been the durability of its higher-margin refining and chemicals units. 

How big of a shift is this?  In 2012 ConocoPhillips, amid an industry rush to decommission a refinery inventory thought to be over capacity, decoupled its chemicals and refining businesses from its drilling businesses in a loud-and-clear bet on long-term profitability in the business of oil and gas production. 

It was a bad bet; the derivative business, Phillips 66, is now throwing off higher profits.  For decades, the petroleum industry has honed a refining/chemicals product diversification strategy which not only offers a hedge against intense commodity market pressures like it’s experiencing today, but one which has produced a expansion and diversification model that biofuel-producing states like Iowa have begun to take notice of.

Currently, less than 10% of the world’s chemical industry is bio-based, but estimates suggest that could adjust upwards to close to 25% by the end of the next decade [creating as many as 20,000 new jobs in the US in the process] as rapid biochemical innovation and commercialization begins to create cost parity with petroleum-based solutions. 

Iowa’s vast biofuels industry- and the biomass supply chain, physical infrastructure and research and human capital which has cropped up as a result- positions the state to capitalize on this growth industry more competitively than virtually any domestic peer. 

Iowa’s more than 40 ethanol and biodiesel facilities- many in rural communities- in many cases represent potential buyer/supplier opportunities for a biochemical industry which has been rapidly developing in Europe for years and is poised to grow its relatively small position in the North American market.  

In short, we’ve got a window to leverage Iowa’s dominant biofuels position to diversify into chemicals and materials derived from Iowa biomass.

That’s why economic development and industry groups like the Iowa Biotechnology Association, Iowa Chamber Alliance and the Cultivation Corridor are supporting a bill currently before the Iowa General Assembly to create a first-in-the-world economic development incentive specifically targeted at this nascent industry. 

House File 656 would create a tax credit program administered by the Iowa Economic Development Authority to help support the growth of biochemical investment in Iowa over the coming years. 

The bill would create a tax incentive for the production of a prescribed set ‘building block’ biochemicals which are derived from biomass feedstock abundant in Iowa as either raw materials or co-products of a bioproduction fuel or other process like starch, sugar and lignin.

As the legislature debates the merits of a bill, research and economic development efforts to firmly establish Central Iowa as a global center of excellence in biochemical and biomaterial research and, ultimately, production are well underway. 

Take, for example, the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals [CBiRC] at Iowa State University in Ames, one of the nation’s largest multi-disciplinary and industry-led biochemical research installations, and the new Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites [CB2] at Iowa State, a pioneering research partnership with Washington State University and private industry.  Indexing these two superb research assets with the physical and supply chain assets already in place in Iowa and, potentially, a global first economic development incentive produces a compelling argument for Iowa to a new and important industry poised to expand.  


What would be the 'coolest' economic development investment?

Note: Kyle Oppenhuizen is a reporter for the Business Record. 

Yesterday, Gov. Branstad's office told us they would announce the "largest-ever economic development investment in Iowa." The announcement was to be made at 4 p.m., giving us about five hours worth of speculation in the newsroom.

It made us wonder: What would be the COOLEST project the governor might announce? My vote was for a pro sports team - which I knew, of course, was highly unlikely.

Turns out, the MidAmerican Energy wind energy expansion that was announced IS pretty cool. Approximately 40 percent of the company's electricity will come from wind energy by the end of 2015.

But pretend for a second you didn't know about MidAmerican's plans. If someone told you that a company was about to make the largest-ever economic development investment in the state, what would you hope for?

Let me know. Comment on this post, on the Business Record's Facebook page, or with the hashtag #IAdreamproject on Twitter.

-Kyle Oppenhuizen

Reporter, Business Record

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