Wood: About that public narrative we’re crafting to attract out-of-state people to move to Des Moines

In my last commentary post for Clay & Milk, I shared my concern that although some national economic development professionals see Des Moines as poised to take a step to “The Big Time” we will never get there because many of the priorities of the Iowa General Assembly, as evidenced by the bills that have gotten consideration in this and recent sessions, continually cast Iowa in a bad light—intolerant, unwelcoming and moving backward.

“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.”

That post caused a lot of phone calls, zoom meetings and a surprisingly lengthy thread on LinkedIn. It has spurred conversations with a lot of technology company founders and people who invest in technology company founders. I’ve received comments from Iowa expats across the country, retired executives from some of our state’s largest employers, local elected officials and one person who plans to run for Governor. For the most part they all share the concern about Iowa’s brand and where we’re headed.

And that was before the nation saw headlines like these from the Washington Post: “Iowa’s House speaker said he can’t make lawmakers wear masks — but he did enforce a ban on jeans” and “Iowa governor lifts mask mandate without public health input.”

In my prior post I did my best to put my thoughts into very pragmatic terms that I hoped would resonate with our legislators; social, moral and ethical arguments aside. Our state has a very small population—less than 1% of the currently estimated total of the US—and we can’t accomplish much of anything if we’re not growing. While the Des Moines-area (and other urban centers in the state) probably still has some runway ahead of us to generate growth—and the all-important social media shareable rankings/list posts about growth—by continuing to attract rural Iowans to the city, it’s a zero-sum situation for the whole of Iowa. The growth we need is net-new people to the Tall Corn State and that is why the actions of our duly-elected legislators, those who directly represent us as Iowans, are so important in crafting Iowa’s image. 

I thought this comment from a startup founder in our state to be particularly sad, yet illustrative:

“I’ve given up on attracting talent to Iowa. We’re investing in being a fully remote company instead. I can’t use low cost of living and bike trails to overcome anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-education, anti-science, aggressively socially conservative policy on top of no mountains or oceans.”

An investor friend sent me a Slack message with his concern based on the reaction he’s seeing to the current political climate in our state:

“The chatter about “why am I here, I should leave” is deafening amongst the younger tech crowd.”

A friend who is a City Council member in a Des Moines suburb shared this:

“I’m actively trying to attract remote workers to [my city], and this sort of nonsense is a real obstacle when we’re competing with places like Colorado. At least we still have good schools! Oh, wait, they’re messing with that too. I guess I’ll just stick to mentioning our gigabit fiber.”

Not everyone who reached out to me did so in agreement with my post, of course. Here is one example:

“Many of the things you list as negatives coming from the legislature I would view as positives and make me proud to live here. I think the majority of Iowans would agree with the legislature’s recent moves as these are the ideas they recently campaigned on and won their respective elections with.” 

I actually think this person’s comment is mostly spot-on—though it entirely misses the point that I was making in the original post—the majority of current Iowans do likely agree with many of the moves of the legislature. That is a big part of the problem. As much as I wanted to make this post only about economic development and stay away from partisanship it can’t be completely avoided. As Gov. Reynolds has said many times in the last year, “Iowa is a red state!” and the unfortunate policies that the legislature is focusing on are tied very directly to the politics of the current Iowa Republican party.

My post was about the need for Iowa to become a more welcoming place and create a brand that attracts people from out-of-state to move here so that our population will increase. The issue is less what the commenter or I or even the “majority of Iowans” think about the Iowa General Assembly’s current legislative priorities and more about whether or not those legislative priorities help us grow. 

I’m sure there is a case to be made that some large-enough amount of people are pro-death penalty, pro-discrimination against LGBTQ people, and anti-choice (feel free to substitute in whatever combination of our current legislative priorities resonate with you) enough to move to Iowa to put our state on a path for growth. One party has held total control of our state government for the last four years, meaning legislation can become law without any real check or requirement for bipartisan compromise, so we should be seeing big population gains if such a case bears out.

According to data in the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board report released last week, Iowa’s net-migration in the past four years is less than 25,000 people. That means on average just over 6,000 more people moved to our state than moved away from our state each year. In that period, we peaked with a 10,552 net-gain in 2017, dropped by half of that to a net-gain of 5,254 in 2019 and bottomed out last year with a net-gain of just 1,148 total people. Looking at the rolling four-year total and the rolling four-year annual average going back to 2009 (the first year data is included in the report), the past four years represent the lowest net-migration to Iowa in both statistics. In other words, we’re growing less and less each year.

The path we’re on does not seem like one that will get us to “The Big Time”.

The obvious question is what we can do to change the situation? In the short term, I’m not sure there is much that we can do. Everyone should reach out to the legislators that represent you, tell them how you feel about these policy priorities and share your concerns for what they’re doing to Iowa’s brand. It’s probably worth doing the same with the leadership of both houses of the Iowa General Assembly, since they control what legislation gets considered. In the long term, we need to elect better leaders.

In a letter from the chair of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board to Gov. Reynolds, part of the report that I mentioned earlier, is a quote about economic development that I like quite a bit:

“The charge from you was straightforward, but aspirational: be bold, be innovative, and be direct about the challenges facing our economy and future success. You asked for recommendations that improve life in our state, and importantly, you asked that our recommendations create opportunity for Iowans of every race, background, and difference.”

Being straightforward and direct about challenges doesn’t come easy to Midwesterners but if we don’t look honestly at the effects of the brand being created for our state by the current priorities of the legislature we are never going to be able to “improve life” or “create opportunity for Iowans of every race, background, and difference.”

Geoff Wood is the founder of Gravitate Coworking, a workplace community for entrepreneurs, freelancers and remote workers in Des Moines, Windsor Heights, Jefferson and Cedar Falls. 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.