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Discussion: Iowa 2010 - Is Iowa Meeting the Challenges?

posted on May 9, 2008 at 2:10 PM

We're going to try to look at these questions tonight. Has Iowa 2010 been successful? Where are we going? And what is Iowa's biggest misconception? We'll pitch these questions to a couple of folks who have the answers, we hope, tonight in our discussion.

Yeager: Jerry Kelley is Mayor of Indianola, he's also a 2010 member. And Professor William Withers is with Wartburg College in Waverly and has studied Iowa's population trends for quite some time. Gentlemen, both, thank you for coming in tonight. We just talked about young professionals. What type of impact are they having on the state and their role in trying to, at least, stay together?

Withers: Well, I think it's a fascinating movement. I don't know exactly how Jerry feels about it, but it seems as if they're trying to reclaim quality of work life and I think they're understanding this is a great place to live and a great place to work but it seems like they're taking it upon themselves to kind of organize and network and it is building on the social networking phenomenon that is going on nationwide.

Kelley: It's kind of an interesting thing that young people have tribes which is a different kind of relationship. Older people have civic groups, old men and their fathers go to rotary kind of thing. But young people have tribes and what happened with the young professionals is they have discovered that these tribes exist all over the state and they have now begun to bring them together, particularly in the 18 counties that are growing. And it is one of the things that is going to cause people to stay because within that group there is support and you need support in order to put down roots.

Yeager: There was a mention from Erica Orrell in there how she has been able to bounce ideas off of other folks in the group in her involvement there. She said that was very important for her. It wasn't that long ago that these groups weren't connected and now they're connected. Why is it as a state level important when you are in Sioux City or in the Quad Cities, how do you link up with those two communities?

Kelley: There is one of those funny little stories -- there is a young man named Matt Randall from Ames who is a pilot and we were doing a grow Iowa tour, Iowans for a Better Future was, and we had gone to Sioux City and Dubuque and Davenport and so on. He got interested and was flying to these different communities and in each of these communities discovered there was a young professionals group that didn't know there was a young professionals group in the next community. And Matt actually became the connector and initiated the first Young Professionals of Iowa state convention I think four years ago. And from that little thing, somebody seeing hey there are assets here that don't know that there are other assets here and together they are a much bigger and more vibrant asset than they are just separate.

Withers: The one thing, Paul, to also watch though is if you were to put those young people in their communities you'll see an interesting phenomenon across the state called regionalization. Where those young people are in-migrating to those communities, those business districts, economic development is thriving but it is leaving a lot of counties, as Jerry said there's 18, there's a lot of counties and communities that won't have that benefit.

Yeager: Well, are we almost to the point of seeing an urban versus rural timeframe?

Kelley: Don't say versus. First of all, the entire state of Iowa if you plunked it down in Chicago it would make a good neighborhood. 2.9 million people, that does not constitute an urban area. It is concentrations of people connected to other concentrations of people but we do not have a versus. Only reason we talk about rural and urban in terms of versus is because somebody sees political advantage and they do not understand we function as a state, we do not function in competition against each other.

Yeager: Because each part of the state has its own strengths and weaknesses. The biggest part of Iowa's growing economy is its rural industry right now, you could argue, with the price of corn. Let's talk about population a little bit, Bill. You've done plenty of presentations across the state. There's a couple of graphs I want to show right now about some of the changes in what we've seen of population. What is this one?

Withers: This first one is the one that most mainstream media here in Iowa pick up on. And you look at this quickly and you say, well, Iowa's actually doing quite well. But I need you to look at the number at the top. This is census data from 1990 to today. And the more compelling, telling picture is when you really throw the curtains back on Iowa and look from the last turn of the century. Look at 1900 to today, in yellow, 500% growth or more. Okay, great. Let's look at the next one. 100% growth, now you're seeing something kind of cave in on what we refer to as the middle west. Last slide, 50% growth or more since the last turn of the century. That's Iowa.

Yeager: The only state in the country. What is the reason for that?

Withers: A lot of different reasons. It's agriculture, in-migration, out-migration, population demographics. It's a variety of things. But here's the thing, Paul, and people accuse me of being a little bit of a chicken little -- to a certain extent these issues are going to happen but they are by external forces, many of which we can not control. So, my thing around 2010 initiatives and forward is what are those things we can't control? And it's interesting that the young people, the young professionals are saying we can do this, we can gather and so they're doing it.

Yeager: You're both educators, you spend time in the school district. Is that what's going to be the key?

Kelley: The thing that Bill is talking about -- Iowa has been in a state of demographic denial for decades. Oh well, we'll just have more people will move here, if we just paid people more, more people will move here. There aren't people to move here. The whole upper Midwest is in exactly the same situation. The crisis in the heartland, there is a very good book, Crisis in the Heartland you ought to read, talks about Minnesota has grown because Iowa's young professionals have moved there. We're out of them. My town grows. It only grows because we're emptying out rural Iowa. We're just moving people around on the chessboard and people do not understand there isn't anyone. You can pay any wage you want, there isn't anyone.

Withers: And interesting in education, in higher education in particular, we're sending our admissions people, we're cannibalizing the states around us that are in the same condition. Now, there might be some advantage to going, say, to Chicago, a metropolitan area but if you looked at the maps we're cannibalizing population in the border states.

Yeager: And they're doing the same to Iowa, they're doing the same thing to us?

Kelley: There is an initiative called Think Iowa and there is a marketing company in Cedar Falls, it's just excellent, they absolutely understand what needs to happen. We have 48 institutions of higher education in Iowa. They are not going to survive because we are not producing enough students locally, Iowa, or regionally, the Midwest, in order to keep them open. There are 3.2 billion dollar a year business in Iowa and it is going to be in trouble. And we're not seeming to understand that's going to make a difference because many of those colleges are in small rural communities and they are the heart of those communities.

Withers: Quickly, Jerry, do you know the numbers on graduating high school seniors?

Kelley: When I started teaching, a while ago, so this is the population we draw down on, there were over 60,000 students graduating every year from Iowa's school systems. It is now less than 35,000 and it will be less than 30,000 because of our aging population. We have 24 or 25 counties now where the average age is over 65. By the next census, the majority of the counties in Iowa will be past child bearing. They're not producing children.

Yeager: So, even if you get everybody who has left Iowa to come back it's still not going to be enough to fill the void. So, where are the answers?

Kelley: Okay, so we looked at six areas in the United States, Atlanta, Boulder, places like that and determined that the most likely area to recruit people to come to Iowa, to go to our institutions of higher learning is Las Vegas. There are only three institutions of higher education in the state of Nevada and they have a tremendous growth rate for the young people. We want Iowa to go there and tell those young people, you come to Iowa and we have 48 institutions, we can cover your entire spectrum of higher education. But somebody has to do it and it isn't going to be the two of us.

Withers: Tell us about all the funding you have and all the support.

Yeager: You're a member of the 2010 commission. Set that aside. I want to see, Bill, your take on what 2010 did. You've been in the state since then when they came out in 2000.

Withers: I was on the Board of Governors for Leadership Iowa during that time.

Yeager: So, on the outside looking in, has Iowa 2010 done anything to address some of these issues?

Withers: 2010 raised awareness and found consensus around eight strategic goals. To be clear, that's amazing. But my question today, and Jerry was on that group, is where are we at? And if it really is about Iowa and not about partisan politics, it wouldn't matter that it was a strategic council initiative by Vilsack, it would be something that Culver and that administration would move forward.

Yeager: Well, Governor Culver's office did say that they listed many things that they have done since they have come into office that Governor Vilsack had already done. So, it appears that this administration is picking it up and running with it from being inside 2010. Has it appeared that it's gone that way?

Kelley: No.

Yeager: No. Why not?

Kelley: Iowans are a funny group as that we like to rediscover problems and study them. In 2000 we handed a plan to then Governor Vilsack that said we need to address Iowa's workforce shortage. Now, I've been to 400 cities in Iowa and eight states talking about that issue. We've rediscovered it. I pick up the Register this morning, they're talking about the workforce issue. That's exactly the same problem that we told them eight years ago is going to occur and why but we're rediscovering the problem and we're going to study it again and we're going to put people worrying about it again. There is a plan that could be implemented eight years ago or at least later today that would begin to address this issue without having to rediscover the issue.

Withers: I'd actually like to know just a status report on where we're at with the eight goals, address each one and we're just not hearing a lot about it.

Kelley: Actually we have those status reports but the problem is that Iowans for a Better Future which is a non-funded, totally volunteer group with no governmental connection therefore it must not have any validity.

Yeager: Right, no teeth to put in anything they say, it's just a piece of paper is what it is. We're going to continue this conversation in just a moment but I want to thank Bill Withers and Jerry Kelley for coming in. And this conversation, as I said, will continue on Iowa Journal's Web site. If you would like to hear more of what these two have to say, I know I would, we'll have a discussion here in just a couple of minutes, you can do that at iptv.org. Meanwhile, as we have often noted on our Out and About segment a community's past informs and shapes its present and its future in all sorts of ways. It takes a lot of people to make a community work. And some towns are lucky enough to have very generous benefactors. Red Oak is one of them. The third generation of the Wilson family, whose family founded the Wilson concrete company, has been investing in the town's future. After a short historical detour our correspondent Dan Kaercher takes a look at some community projects in Red Oak that have been helped by the Wilson's commitment to their home town.

Red Oak was first settled in the 1850s but the town site grew slowly. Then, in 1869, the Chicago, Burlington and Pacific arrived and a town named Red Oak Junction was officially organized.

Red Oak became a center of commerce for the region and boasted a meat packing plant, a brewery, a cannery, flour mills and a brick and tile works. In 1889, the world’s first art calendar was created here. The Murphy Calendar Company would be in business for 100 more years. You can learn all about the area’s past at the new Montgomery County Historical Society Museum which opened in 2006.

And you can find tributes to the past all over town. There’s the Montgomery County Courthouse – a magnificent 1890 structure. We admired the grand turn-of-the-last century homes on the Heritage Hill tour. Then there’s the 1903 Burlington Northern depot. It’s now home to a distinctive and tragic piece of the area’s history – the loss of so many of its young men in World War II.

Jacky Adams: It was a tremendous sacrifice … that this tiny little county of 13,000 people lost a third of their young men it was an impact that is so significant that it needs to be told.

Red Oak’s economic foundation is agriculture, of course, but as it did in the past, the town also has quite a few jobs in business and industry. It lost some of those jobs a few years back when a couple of companies left for Mexico and China. But the town and the county have continued to invest in the future.

The new Montgomery County Family YMCA includes the Carder Indoor Tennis Center – four indoor courts. They draw people from other communities, and in February 2008, the USTA held an indoor junior open here. It’s unusual for a town of this size, but Red Oak has been steeped in tennis for decades.

At the high school the awards fill more than one display case. The winning record goes back to 1931 when Red Oak had the doubles champions at state. The high school’s current coach, Dan Martinez, has won numerous awards.

And going up nearby is another structure intended to enhance the town’s amenities. The Performing Arts and Education Association of Southwest Iowa, which encompasses seven counties and the eastern side of Pottawattamie, is building a performing arts and education center.

Brandstetter: Regions of the state of Iowa have to begin working together and by working together we’re going to be able to make life a lot better for everybody than individual communities working in isolation.

The association, formed in 2003, isn’t waiting for the building. For example, it’s offering string lessons since December 2003. Education is an important part of the Association’s mission. A few students gathered for us while we were in town. Helping them rehearse for a spring concert is their teacher, Rebecca Kia Vanderholm. A full-time violinist with the Omaha Symphony, she plays with Mannheim Steamroller and other symphonies.

From the arts, to sports, to history – to an impressive new motel and more, Red Oak is looking to attract people with its quality of life.

George Maher: A lot of people realize they can come here and have advantages and amenities that I mention and still not live and suffer through, I shouldn’t use the word, but, big cities.

It’s the best of both worlds, small town living with bigger city opportunities.