Durham: Economic growth in Iowa looks promising
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad campaigned with a bold goal to increase jobs and increase income for jobholders in the state, said Debi Durham, Iowa Economic Development Authority director this morning at a breakfast sponsored by Fairfield Economic Development Association.
Durham is on her third visit in 18 months to Fairfield. She gave a fast overview of Iowa’s state of economic health, what’s being done and what can be done. About 20 area business people attended the breakfast.
“To accomplish his goal, we are looking to reestablish our excellence in education and support industries and businesses retooling to make themselves more competitive,” said Durham.
With fewer job openings and higher level of skills needed, wages will increase for those landing jobs, she said.
“The role of government in business growth is to make sure businesses have the right climate to be profitable,” said Durham.
“Iowa doesn’t fare well regarding corporation and property taxes,” she said. “We have the capacity for meaningful tax reform. And we need to change it at the state and federal levels.
“Iowa has the highest corporation tax rate in the world. If we move it to 20-25 percent, if we really cut income taxes, we’ll see an unleashing of capital,” she said.
“We need to make a Research and Development Tax Credit permanent.”
One reason to entice businesses, employers and employees to the state is Iowa’s population growth rate is slow and its population is aging, said Durham.
“How do we present Iowa to the world?” she asked.
Her team came up with one innovative solution: Last summer, out-of-state real estate agents and various business leaders joined a RAGBRAI team.
“What better way to experience Iowa — enjoying our beautiful scenery, meeting our hospitable residents and going through a variety of big and small towns,” she said. “And we had the out-of-state team members over-nighting at CEOs’ homes throughout the week. So they not only experienced Iowa the state, but also got to visit with established business leaders. We’ll do this again.”
Iowa has a culture of innovation, she said.
“Look at farmers, they are the most innovative business around, they are farming every available square inch,” said Durham.
2013 looks to be a record year for growth, she said.
“Iowa needs a larger workforce, it needs a higher-skilled workforce; people need to be reeducated on the value of having that two-year degree,” she said. “We are moving to a credentialed workforce, where every high school graduate has to take an exit test that shows what he knows and what he can do.
“We need immigration reform,” said Durham. “We educate many international students and they take that degree and return home to work. We want to keep them here in Iowa.”
Economic growth also depends on developing communities where people want to live, she said.
“Fairfield has developed a culture where people want to live,” Durham said. “I walked around your square last night, it is beautiful — I love the carousel. I went into the kitchen shop [At Home Store] and was amazed at the international representation of goods there.
“How do we save all Iowa towns? I’ll tell you the answer — it’s not popular. We can’t save all the towns. It’s not the government’s role to save towns. It’s about the community — local leadership has to step up and decide it wants to keep a town. Then state and federal money can help, but it has to start in the community.”
Iowa needs to change the conversation about transportation, she said.
The state needs Farm to Market roads, not those built in the 1900s but new ones to serve the large farm equipment of today and to serve industry.
Iowa needs its own rail container yard, said Durham.
“I don’t see the federal government concerned about our lock and dam system,” she said. “We’re going to have to take care of it ourselves. We have a movement to turn the Mississippi River into a port authority. And why not? Then we could take private investments to move our commodities on the river.”
Her department is reviewing on energy use.
“We need to be stewards of our environment,” she said. “We need to have incentives for changes that really make a difference and are sustainable. We need to look at permeable pavement and bioswales to allow rainwater to soak into the ground and not run into the sewers or cause flash floods and hydroplaning.
“No one is more committed to growing our state’s economy than Terry Branstad,” said Durham. “He’s holding all department heads responsible for helping economic growth.”
Her own department is changing its delivery model to be more proactive, she said, using a think tank to support a more competitive global market and has hired a marketing person to use social media to promote Iowa.
Her department is launching a new website by the end of the year, creating a sales tool rather than “a data dump,” which is how she characterized the current website.
The state has moved to single-source tourism promotion and marketing.
“We’re ‘branding’ Iowa,” she said. “A single source will make it consistent. We’ll have a public relations office, which is different than marketing.
“Where do we want Iowa to be in 10 years?” she asked. “Our state economic development plans have always been as long as the next governor election campaign.
“We’re building a sustainable plan that will outlive Terry Branstad and Debi Durham,” she said.
Durham emphasized that no new businesses should be recruited without first taking care of established businesses.
“Take care of your own backyard first,” she said. “I know Fairfield has been doing this. It’s your established businesses and factories that create the most new jobs.”