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On a hot mid-September Thursday, Kurt Heiar recalled a conversation he’d had earlier that day with other business leaders about workplace culture.
“The more we can talk the same language about some of these kinds of things, the better,” he said as he sat in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.
Heiar, chief executive officer of Immortagen in Coralville, spoke on this notion of sharing views and knowledge after serving as a panelist during Iowa Ideas, an idea-sharing, solutions-building initiative organized by The Gazette.
From water quality to self-driving cars, from school funding and smart cities to population health, the Iowa Ideas conference that took place in downtown Cedar Rapids on Sept. 20-22 delved into scores of topics affecting Iowa and its residents, with its aim to be a nonpartisan approach to identifying and creating solutions.
“We passively have a relationship with the audience every day — they sit back and read the paper. Well, why not have an interactive conversation? How do we bring people together to have that discussion and be forward-looking?”
- Zack Kucharski
Executive Editor, The Gazette
“(It) said it in The Gazette’s title — ‘ideas,’ ” said state Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. “And that’s what we’re looking for, new ideas.”
The event kicked off Sept. 20 with an opening networking event and a keynote address from technology policy expert and Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Alec Ross.
Over the course of the following two days, 634 attendees could choose among 77 panel discussions presented in eight topic tracks — agriculture, health care, K-12 education, energy and environment, higher education, regionalism / workforce, transportation and Workplace (R)evolution.
The conference featured some 250 speakers. In addition, seven speakers delivered keynote addresses for the different tracks.
One attendee, Michelle Barness, a Decorah-based regional planner for Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, noted that certain topics — transportation, regionalism and workforce — were specific to the work she is “dealing with on a daily basis.”
“It helps me to understand the issues better to have a venue like this because when you’re in your everyday life of planning for a region, especially in a rural area, I’m on my own mostly. I don’t have a chance to hear from peers,” Barness said.
Barness, who moved to Iowa from Minnesota a year ago, said the Iowa Ideas conference was a good source for information about grants, programs and contacts to use in her job.
On occasion, discussions on those panels — 250 industry experts, state lawmakers, advocates, members of academia and others took part — brought out conflicting opinions.
“What’s good about when you have those opposing or differing views is it gives people a platform to make their own decisions,” Jacoby said.
On a panel discussing soil and water conservation, for example, panelist Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times, contested a point made by another panelist on solutions for diversifying farms.
“Are you suggesting cattle is not a part of the solution?” he asked.
“No, it’s part of the solution, it really is,” responded panelist Ken Moore, professor in agriculture and life sciences at Iowa State University. “But it’s not the only solution.”
Tim Wagner, agriculture outreach coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America in Decorah, sat in on the soil and water conservation panel.
Wagner, who has spent most of his career in conservation advocacy in Utah, said he attended the conference to learn about conversations happening around the state.
“For me to be able to come back to Iowa and to be a part of these kinds of issues, it’s kind of taken me back full circle,” Wagner said.
He grew up on his parents’ farm near Corwith, a small town in north central Iowa. It was in the 1970s, when he was old enough to help work the farm with his father, that Wagner said he began to see changes in the agriculture industry and the way it affected the land.
According to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa is the most “ecologically altered state in the entire union.” Agriculture has now taken up 99 percent of its prairie, drained 95 percent of its wetlands and cut down 75 percent of its forests.
“It was in those transition years that I really began to understand that we were having a pretty serious impact on the land,” Wagner said.
He went on to work at various conservation organizations in Utah, before his work returned him to Iowa in August.
“That’s why I have this job that I have now because it brings me back full circle to those conservation roots that I learned on the farm,” he said.
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For some attendees, the speakers and panelists offered new insights.
Candi Schmieder is director of enrollment for the Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona. She said her school is small enough — with 83 students in grades 9-12 — that she believes some of the more innovative programs discussed throughout the panels, such as Iowa BIG, which enables students to engage in community projects, could be implemented in her school.
“It’s really great to be able to share these ideas and to see ideas that are put into place that are successful,” Schmieder said. “We want things to be research-based, so to hear the research that’s behind some of this stuff is really helpful and gives you the motivation to move forward.”
The two-and-a-half day conference was a part of the Iowa Ideas initiative from The Gazette that has included a series of ongoing magazines as well as symposiums held around the state earlier in the year.
Gazette organizers created the initiative with the goal to become bolder in community engagement and have a larger, but still neutral, role in conversations around the state.
“We passively have a relationship with the audience every day — they sit back and read the paper. Well, why not have an interactive conversation?” noted Zack Kucharski, executive editor of The Gazette. “So that’s what Iowa Ideas is about: How do we bring people together to have that discussion and be forward-looking?”
The Iowa Ideas conference will be an annual event, he added, and Iowa Ideas magazine will publish five editions in 2018, as it did in 2017.
“Hopefully we can drive progress on some of these issues, rather than just covering the stalemate or covering debates of people who never connected with each other,” Kucharski said.
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