Can a regional approach bolster the Corridor's economy?

Economic development leaders put their weight behind a joint entity

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CEDAR RAPIDS — With the Corridor facing low unemployment rates and the attraction of people, not just jobs, at center stage, local economic development leaders have put their faith behind a regional approach.

Together, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Development Group have formed a third entity, Iowa’s Creative Corridor Development Corp. While formed last year, the Development Corp. went leaderless until July when Jennifer Daly took the post of president and chief executive officer.

Daly’s appointment, leaders for the Alliance and ICAD said, cements what economic developers and business leaders have said is needed for years — for both ends of the Corridor, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, to work together.

“When businesses are looking from the outside in at our community, they’re not necessarily studying the jurisdictional line,” Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin said.

A University of Iowa graduate who helped start the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville, Daly previously led economic development groups in Mount Pleasant and in Morton and Peoria, Ill.

“If you’re not at the table then you miss a lot of great opportunity. We are very fortunate that right now, this region is growing. That may not always be the case,” Daly said.

In her role, Daly will focus on workforce development and business attraction for a seven-county region.

Outside companies “are not going to locate here if you can’t show them you have the talented workforce that can feed them,” Daly said.

And companies already in the Corridor can’t grow if they can’t fill jobs, she added.

The Corridor’s ability to start and recruit companies is “vastly hindered by the fact that our unemployment is so low, and population growth has not kept up with the needs of these innovative companies that want to be here,” ICAD President Mark Nolte said.

“Our No. 1 issue is we have more jobs than people here,” he said.

In addition, Daly’s role will include marketing all of the Corridor, not just Cedar Rapids or Iowa City.

“If we don’t have anybody at the table that is promoting the Corridor for those opportunities ... then those expansions and new projects will go other places,” she said.

Marketing seven counties at once instead of just three or four puts the Corridor “on a lot more radars,” said Alliance Executive Director Doug Neumann.

“When you throw that whole picture out to a site selector in Toronto who didn’t even really know about Cedar Rapids or Iowa City by itself, you put yourself in the game for more prospects and for more projects,” he said.

The addition of Daly and the Development Corp. also means there is one more voice in the mix. While the Alliance and ICAD represent the northern and southern edges of the Corridor, respectively, cities such as Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have their own economic development staff.

Other private groups represent individual cities or counties, such as the Marion Economic Development Corp. or Benton County’s Benton Development Group.

“We’re all one team. I find it hard to believe that we’re ever in competitive mode. All of these entities, it’s meant to make this a more effective process, not a less effective process,” Neumann said.

While all of those players may cause confusion, leaders for the cities, ICAD and the Alliance said each have their roles to play.

“There is not confusion. We have it pretty well delineated as far as what everybody does,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.

For example, groups such as the Alliance and ICAD are responsible for pitching the region and bringing in prospective companies from outside the Corridor.

“We actually have two China projects right now that we’re working on.” Neumann said. “The city is not going to discover those. We’re going to discover those because we’ve got these tentacles everywhere. We’re marketing everywhere and we’re trying to have our reach extend everywhere.”

Individual cities or counties are then responsible for putting their best foot forward, Pomeranz said. Once a company makes a decision, work is turned over to local government to establish incentives and development plans.

“The Economic Alliance or the (joint venture), they don’t have the attributes that we have,” Pomeranz said. “They don’t have incentives, they don’t have utilities, they don’t have infrastructure, they don’t have the process.”

Both Pomeranz and Fruin said they are pleased with the work of their cities’ respective economic development groups. They also agreed the joint venture and a more regionalized approach would benefit both sides of the Corridor.

“It’s a recognition that while we may have a group working on the south end and a group working on the north end, from the outside looking in, many folks are seeing this as one large region and we need to have an approach to some of the key issues that is broader than it has been in years past,” Fruin said.

Jasmine Almoayed, Cedar Rapids’s economic development manager, echoed those notions.

“For someone to make this larger coordinated effort of how are we going to be attracting, retaining employees to this area to help these businesses, that’s something that under this new joint venture they’ll really be able to focus on in a much more significant way than they’ve been able to do in the past,” Almoayed said.

Path to a merger?

Daly’s hiring makes the regional focus for the Alliance and ICAD more official, Neumann and Nolte said.

“There was nothing that was institutionalized. As relationships ebbed or as people came and went, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the effort,” Neumann said.

Just as there have been calls for regionalism, some in the Corridor have floated the idea that ICAD and the Alliance merge. Both Nolte and Neumann said the Development Corp. does not mean a merger is imminent.

“I think when you look at the activities and purposes of those (organizations), the vast majority of people at this point still believe there’s enough unique and parochial interest in each of those that they have a purpose” on their own,” Neumann said.

Neither, however, completely ruled out the idea. If investors in each decide a merger is beneficial, they said, it likely will be pursued.

“I think if we can continue to build the trust and collaboration, I see that as a very potential outcome down the road,” Nolte said.

Daly said the number of organizations is less important than “collective impact.”

“What collective impact says is the more players the better, what matters is are all the players working together on a coordinated effort,” she said.

Who does what

l Jennifer Daly: Chief executive officer and president of Iowa’s Creative Corridor Development Corp., a separate entity but joint initiative of the Economic Alliance and ICAD. The Development Corp. represents the counties of Benton, Linn, Jones, Iowa, Johnson, Cedar and Washington. Daly reports to her own board, made up of equal membership from ICAD and Economic Alliance board members. Funding and staffing is provided by the Economic Alliance and ICAD.

l Doug Neumann: Executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. The Economic Alliance primarily represents the counties of Benton, Linn, Jones and Iowa. Neumann reports to a board of Economic Alliance members.

l Mark Nolte: President of the Iowa City Area Development Group. ICAD primarily represents the counties of Johnson, Cedar, Washington and Iowa. Nolte reports to a board of ICAD members.

Government funding

Both the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Development Group receive funding from city and county governments in the Corridor.

In total, the Economic Alliance receives $201,920 a year — about 10 percent of its budget — from Linn County and the cities of Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha, Marion and Robins, a spokeswoman said. Cedar Rapids is the biggest contributor.

The Iowa City Area Development Group receives 40 percent of its operating budget from municipalities, but a spokeswoman could not provide a specific dollar figure. ICAD’s public sector members include Coralville, Iowa City, Kalona, North Liberty, Solon, Tiffin, West Branch, West Liberty and Johnson County.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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