CORONAVIRUS

Iowa economic development leader sees opportunity after COVID-19

'There is a light at the end of this,' Debi Durham tells Corridor group

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a coronavirus news conference April 8 in
Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a coronavirus news conference April 8 in Johnston. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register/Pool)

CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s not shaping up to be the year she anticipated, but Iowa’s economic development director is confident the state will not only survive the coronavirus pandemic, but see opportunities as the crisis passes.

“We’re in a very stressful time, but there is a light at the end of this, there is great opportunity in our future,” Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham said during a conversation Wednesday with ICR Iowa, the regional economic development organization serving the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area.

Durham recalled that in December she laid out the projects IEDA was working on and predicted the state would have its best year for economic development. Many of the issues that were unsettling to the economy, such as trade wars, seemed to have been resolved. She anticipated “huge” investments from Iowa legacy companies. IEDA’s innovation platform was strong, and the state’s strategies in biotechnology and education technology seemed to be producing results.

“I was so bullish on the economy,” Durham said. “Well, obviously, COVID-19 happened.”

The point, she said, is that Iowa went into the pandemic in a strong position, not only in terms of the economy, but state government was in good financial shape with strong reserves.

“So I believe whether this is a V, or U or now economists are saying a W, whatever in the world that is, recovery cycle ... certainly there is going to be an impact,” Durham said, “but I still believe Iowa will come out of this stronger than before, and probably even faster than you’re going to see some of our peers do that.”

Reynolds’ charge to IEDA was, first, to do what it could to keep as many people working as possible, and secondly, to respond to the cash flow and liquidity challenges Iowa’s smaller, consumer-facing businesses were experiencing.

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IEDA launched a targeted small business relief program with $4 million. That was increased to $24 million, and the agency was delivering checks to businesses within 18 days. However, the need is probably closer to $140 million, Durham said.

Preference was given to bars and restaurants, Durham said, because they were ordered to close early on and will have difficulty getting help through the federal Payroll Protection Program.

Responding to questions about aid for hospitals and nonprofits, Durham said those might be addressed in a future federal coronavirus relief bill. Also the Iowa Finance Authority has some bonding capacity that could help some city and county hospitals.

Helping nonprofits appears to be more difficult because in many cases there is a lack of data, Durham said.

“It’s really difficult to get a measurement of what we’re really talking about because if we survey them today, based on how a lot of their operations work, they would probably be OK today,” she said. “They’re looking into the future, (but) the data seems to be spotty in this area. So I would challenge the nonprofit world that in order to make a case, we have to have data.

“Let me just say it’s an area flagged for us, but I do not have any words of wisdom at this point,” Durham said.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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