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Punching above our weight class

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


In college for a time, I held a straight-commission job selling water softener systems door-to-door. I knew that while my particular product may have been top-of-the-line, it was also spectacularly overpriced; many systems you could buy off the shelf at a hardware store for a fraction of the price could do the job nearly as well.

This in mind, I initially targeted the wealthiest neighborhoods in town where, presumably, the highest concentration of customers with the financial wherewithal to buy my expensive product lived.  I didn’t sell a single unit. Frustrated, I readjusted my strategy to target middle-income neighborhoods.

It worked. Once I made a handful of sales in those neighborhoods, often by applying steep discount allowances I had been granted to generate initial sales activity, I moved back to the wealthier neighborhoods. With anecdotes in hand of families of more modest means purchasing the very same system, my sales took off. 

I had learned early a critical lesson: to win, sometimes you’ve got make the prize holder uncomfortable. And then muscle your way into the ring and take it.

Competition is fundamental to industry -- from banking to automotive; journalism to engineering; IT to agriculture.  Economic development, of course, is no different. Engaged in what amounts to enterprise sales with a state, region or community and its qualities as their product, economic developers like those in Central Iowa find themselves regularly engaged in fierce, pitched competitive battles with their counterparts in other countries, states and communities for job creation projects. 

The makeup of our region’s competition for projects is increasingly intimidating and fierce, and that’s a good thing.  Visit with any of the scores of men and women who are professionally engaged in attracting new investment and jobs to their communities in Central Iowa and they will tell you that overwhelmingly, we find ourselves competing with regions and metros much larger than the 900,000-person Cultivation Corridor region. The Central Iowa of 2016 is competing with New York, Indianapolis and Hartford for insurance projects; with Northern California for technology projects; with St. Louis for plant science projects; with Kansas City for animal health projects; with Chicago for publishing and food processing projects; the list goes on. 

Indian writer Toba Beta once said “[j]ealousy is love in competition.” A time ago, the Central Iowa region’s economic developers may have found themselves, hands cupped around eyes, gazing into the proverbial storefront window of major job creation projects as much larger metro areas fought ferociously among themselves for them; Central Iowa not invited to the party.

But success begets success, and as major, brand name projects like Facebook and Athene and Workiva have chosen the region and top national rankings have poured in in the last half decade or so, Central Iowa’s profile among the national site location consultant community and broader corporate sector has grown appreciably.

The result has been new opportunities to compete for projects with major American and international cities which our region in years past would never have been invited to compete for. It’s the functional equivalent of being invited to sit at the adult’s table at Thanksgiving after years of meals around a card table in the living room.

The economic development team at the Greater Des Moines Partnership -- the region’s largest economic development operation -- will tell you that in many more cases than not, Greater Des Moines is the smallest metro in the mix for the projects they are working. The team at the Ames Economic Development Commission will tell you the same thing, as will many other agencies in the region. This is a great compliment and fine testament to the progress the region and its practitioners have made in the last decade.

We’re punching above our weight class in Central Iowa, and we’re landing some punches.


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

Human: 515-360-1732

Digital: bwillett@cultivationcorridor.org / @brent_willett / LinkedIn.com/in/brentwillett


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