Business

Campaign to combat Iowa's 'population problem'

Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham talks marketing, manufacturing

“Our whole ad campaign is really edgy,” says Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham during a conference at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. Above, she speaks as part of the keynote panel with — Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise (left) and Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend — at the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex this past September. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
“Our whole ad campaign is really edgy,” says Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham during a conference at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. Above, she speaks as part of the keynote panel with — Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise (left) and Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend — at the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex this past September. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa’s tourism office lured unsuspecting Manhattanites to consider moving to Iowa as part of an outside-the-box marketing pitch in New York City.

The department set up a pop-up real estate office staffed with actors posing as agents in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City. They posted Iowa properties on the window — lofts and homes — and listed the price, and waited for people to stop in.

The agent described the amenities, including a pantry as a “walk-in closet for food,” the short commute to the city — they just didn’t say which city — and reassured the price was not missing a “couple of zeros.”

“She said, ‘No, this is a legitimate price,’” explained Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority who also recently was put in charge of the Iowa Finance Authority. “‘This is a real property. And it really is 15 minutes. And you really can have a walk-in closet for food.’

“‘The only thing is you have to move to Iowa,’” Durham said, recounting video recordings of the encounter. “It created this whole conversation about what does Iowa have. It has these incredible jobs and opportunities and high standard of living.”

Durham, speaking at a developer’s conference at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance on Thursday, said the material will be part of a new national marketing campaign aimed to get people to consider moving to Iowa.

As Durham puts it, Iowa has a “population problem,” which is a common complaint of employers.

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Durham said they plan to pitch the campaign nationally and advertise on Pandora and Hulu and even as wraps on Uber vehicles.

“We are having fun with this,” Durham said. “Our whole ad campaign is really edgy. It is segmented. It is designed to appeal to different age groups.

“I think I will be doing a lot of apologizing, which I am used to. It is going to get people’s attention, which it has to do.”

Durham wouldn’t get into specifics of how it is “edgy.” Nebraska gained national attention last year for its anti-tourism campaign, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

Durham noted the tourism office, which is a division of the Economic Development Authority, also has launched a “99 Counties, 99 Parks” campaign to promote Iowa outdoor amenities.

Durham touched on several other topics during the Economic Alliance conference. Here are some highlights:

WORKFORCE HOUSING

A freeze on new applications for workforce housing tax credits, which had been a popular state incentive to help developers build housing with lower price points, is expected to be lifted — but only for rural areas.

The state legislature increased the funding cap for the program from $20 million to $25 million, including from $5 million to $10 million earmarked for rural projects, she said.

However, the agency plans to use virtually all the funds to clear the $25 million backlog of rural projects in July, while not addressing urban projects, Durham said.

The pent-up up demand for rural housing is great, she said. When the application process resumes, it will be as a competitive program, she said.

Urban areas can expect to be shut out of the program for at least another year, she said, noting a $29 million backlog of urban projects.

In Cedar Rapids, workforce tax credits have been used on a number of projects, including the Redstone row houses at 317 Second Street SW and for 500 on First, a four-story apartment complex at the southwest corner of First Street and Fifth Avenue SW.

In spring 2018, the Cedar Rapids City Council agreed to cover the expected $300,000 to $400,000 state contribution by awarded more than typical local incentives — a 13-year, 100 percent tax break — for College Commons, a mix use development northeast corner of First and 14th Street NE.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Durham said she plans to recommend a sweeping housing bill to the Iowa Legislature next year to address needs on a number of fronts.

“I think we should look at a statewide tax credit program for housing, affordable to moderate income housing,” she said. “Other states are doing this.”

The low income housing tax credit has a cap of $8.5 million annually, she said, but the demand is $35 million.

She said she also hopes to rewrite the state’s Community Development Block Grant rules to refocus on different kinds of housing, including using upper stories of retail building for housing.

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“You can expect next year — now that I have my feet underneath me as director of IFA as well and I can see our programs and the gaps in our programs — you can expect us to come forth to the legislature with an omnibus housing bill that is going to address a lot of things,” she said.

MANUFACTURING

Changes are ahead for the future of one of Iowa’s top industries, but it could be a positive, Durham said.

“This is truly who we are,” Durham said. “We are all about manufacturing. This is our largest gross state product.”

The look of the factory floor, though, is going to change. As automation plays a larger roll, jobs will be lost, but also new jobs created with higher pay.

“We are going through a fourth industrial revolution that, quite frankly, gets me excited,” Durham said. “It’s all about automation. All about AI. All about digital.

“Our manufacturing floors are going to look very different, and there is not going to be a lot of people, right. But the people there are going to get paid higher wages because it is all about critical thinking. It is the only way we will be able to compete.”

Will jobs be shed, she asked?

“Absolutely. But will more jobs be created? Yes, absolutely. And they will be created here in Iowa.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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