SIOUX CITY — After eight years leading the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Debi Durham said she had taken several steps to leave state government at the end of 2018.
But Durham reversed course when Gov. Kim Reynolds asked her to head the Iowa Finance Authority while continuing to lead the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
“I already had a gig lined up in the private sector. I felt like eight years was time,” Durham told the Sioux City Journal editorial board Monday. “I had prepared my staff for that I was leaving at the end of the year. When Gov. Reynolds and I met, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I said yes.”
That offer allowed Durham to take on additional responsibility, which she cherished after feeling “pretty well done at IEDA.” Instead, she added the finance authority to her portfolio — on a permanent basis, after serving as the interim director for much of 2018 — following the departure of David Jamison. He was fired last March after multiple female employees accused him of sexual harassment and other workplace hostility.
Though Durham conceded Monday that the finance authority faced a tough 2018, she said she arrived not to reform the IFA’s culture but to create a natural hegemony she thinks should be permanent.
“My thing was not as a fixer to come in and clean up. Mine is to grow it, which for me is the most exciting part — which is why I stayed,” said Durham, whose salary of $204,000 makes her one of nine Iowa agency heads to make more than Reynolds.
“I’m energized by this, but more importantly I believe in this mission. I think this makes all the sense in the world.”
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Indeed, Durham extolled the benefits of combining the two agencies under one leader. She indicated that she would oversee both organizations until she leaves state government. She has turned over day-to-day operations of each agency, allowing her to focus on crafting broad strategic efforts. She elevated Rita Grimm, a former Sioux City resident, to chief operating officer at IEDA, and Carolann Jensen to the same position at IFA.
“This is a long-term good government play. I believe these two entities need to be better aligned in a permanent way with a single leader,” Durham said.
“If you believe in a holistic growth plan, and Gov. Reynolds does, it’s not about just the jobs. It’s about building communities people want to live in and everything in between. ... You will be able to deploy resources in not only a much more strategic way for the state but actually in a much more transformational way.”
Durham said she wants to propose legislation next year that would officially create an entity joining the two agencies she heads.
Durham, who previously was president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and The Siouxland Initiative, was appointed the state’s economic development director by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011. She remained in the post after Reynolds, the former lieutenant governor, succeeded Branstad as governor, following his appointment as U.S. ambassador to China.
During the last eight years, Durham has maintained her home in Sioux City. She cited the long commute back and forth to Des Moines on weekends as another reason she considered leaving state government. But Reynolds made her an enticing offer.
“I said, yes, for one, because I’m energized by this. And, more importantly, I believe in this mission. I think makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “And I believe in (Reynolds). If I can be helpful to her in the next few years. I’m happy to serve.”