Wood: If Des Moines is ever going to hit the big time our state legislators need to act like it

Earlier this week, Facebook Memories reminded me that a publication called Site Selection Magazine put out an article a year ago—before most of us had ever heard the word “coronavirus”—with the subtitle “These 10 cities are ready for the big time. They just need to act like it.”. Our capital city, Des Moines, is one of the ten and anytime Des Moines gets ranked for something positive it’s going to get shared around the social web. It’s just a thing that we do in Des Moines. Or more specifically a thing we do in the “Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area”.

I found the article really interesting, mostly because it wasn’t just an affirmation of where we are—our population growth, job growth, college degree attainment rate, and per-capita GDP all exceed the national average—but it was also instructive on what we need to do as a community to take the next step. In other words, it gave us—individuals, community leaders, and government representatives alike—instructions on how to “act like it”.

One of the main issues currently holding Des Moines back from the “Big Time”, per the article, is figuring out how to attract people to move here. Yes, our rate of population growth is ahead of the national average but the key is where those new Des Moinesians (Des Moiners? Des Moinesites? Eh, new “People that reside in Des Moines”, I guess) are moving from. The answer is other parts of Iowa. Des Moines’ rapid population gain is offset by a nearly equal rapid population loss in Iowa’s other cities and rural communities. Further compounding the issue, our total state population is pretty small to start with (less than 1% of the current estimated US population). Cities that have hit said Big Time—the article cites places like Austin, Nashville, and Raleigh—all draw significantly from across the country, not just other parts of Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina. 

We have a lot of things going for us in Iowa—there’s a reason that my family and I chose to move back here 12 years ago—but they aren’t the easy sells of oceans or mountains. We don’t have a South by Southwest or Austin City Limits-like festival atmosphere to bring people here from all over the world every year. We can’t even promise anyone good weather all year long (it snowed 13” in Des Moines on Monday).

The good news is the article tells us that we, like the other cities on their list, already have the community infrastructure in place—amazing restaurants, a thriving craft brew culture, third wave coffee shops, arts and cultural assets, even coworking spaces (it didn’t actually say “even coworking spaces” but I’m assuming that was just an oversight)—to support the Big Time.

What we’re all lacking is a strong “public narrative” pushing our community and the type of environment that is welcoming to people who aren’t already here, married to someone from here or that grew up here. It’s not for lack of trying, our state and local economic development organizations have put a lot of effort into crafting an attractive narrative and several civic and social groups are doing similar work in helping to make our community more welcoming. 

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for our representatives in the state legislature. At ten months into a (hopefully) once-in-a-century pandemic, the kind of public narrative I wish we had being reinforced at the State Capitol is that of a law-making body crafting clear-cut and aggressive legislation that supports our small businesses during this crisis, provides resources to help our schools fully reopen safely and extends healthcare benefits as nearly 10% of Iowans, at least so far, face an uncertain medical future after having contracted the virus. This kind of narrative would reinforce that leadership is focused on supporting the Iowans that already live and do business here. It would also show that our leadership wants to see our population and economy grow.

That narrative, however, does not exist. It is not Iowa’s current brand. Instead of focusing on laws to create programs to help the many small businesses and Iowans who are struggling right now, the very first bill considered by the Iowa Senate when they reconvened for the 2021 session was to reinstate capital punishment in Iowa, a draconian measure the same body eliminated in 1965. The Iowa House has made headlines by advancing constitutional amendments to further restrict access to abortion and limit potential gun safety regulations. Both houses are fast tracking unpopular reforms that could upend our K-12 public education system in the state. There are bills to eliminate tenure at our state universities, which would cripple those leading research institutions, and several bills that could legalize discrimination against and restrict the rights of LGBTQ Iowans all currently under consideration. The public narrative crafted by the legislature’s current work won’t only not attract new people to Iowa, it will drive many of us away.

The people in the state legislature represent us as Iowans. We literally elected them for that specific purpose. Therefore these efforts, and others like them, also represent what it means to be Iowan. These efforts show that our community is not one that welcomes new people and the public narrative that results from these efforts is not one that will attract people to come here from outside the state. 

I get genuinely excited when I think about the possibility of Iowa’s capital city joining the Big Time some day, but it is not guaranteed that it will happen. It will take the work of all us, including those representing us in the current legislative session, doing our part and acting like we’re ready for it.

Geoff Wood is the founder of Gravitate Coworking, a workplace community for entrepreneurs, freelancers and remote workers in Des Moines, Windsor Heights and Jefferson. As part of his role as a community builder, he’s the publisher of entrepreneurial news blog Clay & Milk and a frequent conference speaker and event organizer. He’s been helping share the story of, and discuss the issues in, the Iowa entrepreneurial community since 2009.