University of Iowa president to tri-chair Creative Corridor strategy

'Your response just made my year'

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IOWA CITY — Nearly four years after branding the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area as “Iowa’s Creative Corridor,” economic leaders across Eastern Iowa are looking to launch a “vision strategy” for the region aimed at creating an actionable five-year plan.

The group is asking three top executives and organization heads to chair its “Creative Corridor Regional Vision Strategy” — including new University of Iowa President J. Bruce Harreld, according to emails obtained by The Gazette.

Harreld said he would “love to colead this important work” in a Sept. 24 email to Dee Baird, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. UI officials confirmed for The Gazette that Harreld plans be one of the strategy’s three chairs.

“Your response just made my year,” Baird wrote to Harreld in a Sept. 25 email. “We are behind you and want to see you succeed.”

According to Baird’s emails to Harreld, her group also is asking Kelly Ortberg, CEO of Rockwell Collins, and Nancy Kasparek, president of US Bank for the region, to serve as tri-chairs. Neither Ortberg nor Kasparek responded to inquiries from The Gazette.

In a statement to The Gazette, Baird said planning for the initiative is preliminary, and the group is meeting next week — after which time she will provide more information.

In her email asking Harreld to get involved, Baird outlined the genesis and the vision of the creative corridor — saying 30 regional leaders came together after the 2008 floods and agreed on three strategic imperatives: achieving full flood recovery, developing and implementing a regional brand, and developing and implementing a regional economic development strategy.

“We did the first two, but not the third,” she wrote in the email. “While we have made progress with our regional brand, we must develop a regional economic development strategy as our common denominator.”

To that end, Baird said, “We are ready to launch an actionable, consensus-based, five-year vision for Iowa’s Creative Corridor.” The group is using Atlanta-based consultant Market Street Services Inc. for the project.

Market Street was involved in a similar project called “Capital Crossroads” launched in 2011 and led by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. That project was a regional planning effort to look, in part, at how Central Iowa could brand itself as a life-sciences hub capable of attracting nationwide talent.

Iowa State University President Steven Leath, who also new to his campus at the time, co-chaired the “Capital Corridor” portion of that project.

“At the outset of their process, ISU President Leath embraced the initiative as one of their chairs,” Baird wrote in her email to Harreld. “The result has been tremendous respect for his leadership in economic development for Iowa.”

Harreld, who was chosen as UI’s 21st president Sept. 3 and officially started Monday, comes from a non-traditional background in that he spent decades in the business world and has no academic administrative experience.

He led IBM through a major turnaround, helped launch Boston Market Company, and taught at Harvard Business School, where he earned his master’s degree.

Since being publicly introduced as a candidate for the presidency, Harreld has faced questions and criticism from some members of the UI community who have concerns about his lack of experience, inaccuracies on his resume, and the Board of Regents search that brought him to Iowa.

But Baird in her email said, “The business community is behind you and, frankly, we need the University of Iowa at the helm for this important work.”

She said her organization — the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance — started in 2012 and has 1,100 business members representing more than 92,000 employees. Its vision, she said, is to be the top economic growth region in the country, taking a holistic approach to business, community, economic, and regional development.

“I am one of a handful of leaders who have worked at the relationship between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City with limited success,” she wrote. “The two communities are very different but, if viewed appropriately, they can and are seen as a ‘special combination’ that could and should be leveraged for greater economic growth and prosperity.”

Baird said she believes the efforts are making progress.

“I feel we are on the ‘cusp’ of transformational change, but we need your leadership,” she wrote to Harreld.

According to a news release for its 2012 debut, Iowa’s Creative Corridor stretches from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids along I-380 and is home to more than two dozen municipalities, multiple higher education institutions, dozens of arts organizations, nearly 30 Fortune 500 companies, and more than a dozen international organizations.

Counties comprising the regional economy of the corridor include Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington. It encompasses about 4,400 square miles, according to the news release.

Baird, in her email to Harreld, said the goal is to launch the vision strategy in 2016, and it has support from a regional team of partners, including the East Central Council of Governments, Iowa City Area Development Group, and the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Iowa City Chamber President Nancy Quellhorst on Wednesday said the vision strategy could help the corridor compete on a global stage while advancing the regional economy.

“We have limited resources,” she said. “And any time we can collaborate and have a common vision, we are going to be more efficient and effective.”

Quellhorst said all three of the proposed chairs for the project “bring so much to the table” with their depth of knowledge and experience. And, she said, having UI buy-in is critical.

“They are the major employer at the south end of the corridor and an economic engine in our community,” she said. “It’s always to our advantage to work with the university.”

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