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CEDAR RAPIDS — Zachary Mannheimer believes any rural town in America can thrive as long as it has two things: a strong development plan and a leader to execute it.
Mannheimer founded the Des Moines Social Club in 2007 and is now the principal community placemaker with McClure Engineering, headquartered in the Des Moines area.
He spoke Friday as the keynote speaker for the final day of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference, in its second year in Cedar Rapids.
After living in New York City for over a decade, Mannheimer went on a road trip across the country to find a city that differed heavily from the places he lived in before. Specifically, he wanted to move somewhere with around 500,000 people in it, had a growing but not yet established arts scene and was politically split.
“I realized I was living in a bubble,” he said. “Everyone around me looked like me, thought like me, ate like me, played like me, and I didn’t think that was very healthy for me as a human or as an artist.”
He said the coasts of the United States are already oversaturated with artists and creatives in search of making a living, and said they will move from the major metro areas into smaller cities where there’s less competition. It’s those people rural towns should target for recruitment, Mannheimer said.
His strategy reverses the traditional thinking of economic development. Instead of local groups incentivizing businesses to bring jobs to an area and hoping people relocate to fill them, Mannheimer suggests incentivizing people to move and take jobs that are already open in the area.
That idea was mirrored somewhat by Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend during a Thursday keynote at the conference, where she pointed out that there are tens of thousands of available jobs in the state but not enough skilled people to fill them. Labor is short nationwide, as seen by an unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent for the past several months.
It doesn’t matter how many available well-paying jobs a town might have, Mannheimer said, if it doesn’t have entertainment or amenities that people both young and old demand, workers won’t move there.
Mannheimer argued for incentivizing arts and education by offering a mix of public and private dollars to subsidize rents, pay student loan bills or offer underused space in exchange for community services.
“Whatever profession you need in your community, you can create a program for that,” he said.
The other key component to his plan is having affordable housing, which builders are weary to produce in rural areas because the cost of building a house or apartment building isn’t justified by lower sale prices or rents expected in a less populated area. The fix, Mannheimer believes, is again in incentives.
He pointed to Newton, which offers $10,000 cash, free gym memberships, tickets to the Iowa Speedway and a lawn mower to anyone who buys a home built in 2014 or newer, and guarantees builders that the city will purchase unoccupied new homes if they don’t sell within a year of completion. If it works, Mannheimer said the occupied home will provide far more tax revenue than investing in job creation.
It’s a grand strategy and seems expensive on its face, particularly for small towns without much of a tax base to draw funding from.
But Mannheimer doesn’t believe getting startup capital is a problem if there are people in those rural towns willing to make a revitalization plan, stick through adversity and avoid the “vocal minority” that opposes change.
“Money is never the problem for any of these things out there,” he said, “If you’re good enough to persevere through the process, you can find the money. It’s leadership that is the true question we’re looking for.”
Mannheimer also spent part of Friday’s keynote pleading the case for rural cities both in Iowa and across the country to plan for future technologies, like driverless cars that make commuting easier, 3D printers that are large enough to build entire structures without the need for human labor and other emerging technologies that other countries are investing in that could radically alter how economies work.
“The reason it’s not happening is because people are trying to do this in urban areas, and you can’t because of unions, regulations and codes. But in rural America? Most of those things don’t exist. ... Land is available and inexpensive, and we can help solve the rural housing crisis.”
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