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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.


  • Larry Carter Center
    Posted February 15, 2021 at 11:36 pm

    The General Assembly and theocrat Reynolds plan is to force women to stay pregnant give tax money to bigoted religious schools and refuse to build hydrogen cars which clean the air of poison fossil fuel burning …..THE IOWA BIG TIME ahead is organic food Monsanto paying to clean up the Raccoon River and fresh air that does not kill our elderly and youngsters
    End the lies against the Green New Deal of @HowieHawkins @AngelaNWalker http://WWW.HOWIEHAWKINS.US since 2010 it works in NY and can clean up Iowa of corrupt demonRATs and rethuglicans

    • Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide
      Posted February 16, 2021 at 11:07 am

      Reynolds is the worst governor in Iowa history and the Republicans in the legislature have done everything possible to kill public education and cause hatred among its citizens in Trump’s irreparable Divided States of AmeriKKKa.

  • Derek Balsley
    Posted February 16, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Geoff, I support the goal of your article (making Iowa more appealing for startups and talent-acquisition). However, I fear that due to your own partisan priorities, you’re missing the mark a little.

    For example: is there a reason you didn’t add things like Iowa’s top-ten status for income tax rates? With rates going up to ~9%, this is clearly a friction-point for attracting new talent to the state.

    As another example, the biggest story on this topic in the national media is the recent rapid growth of low-tax, pro-business red-leaning states like Florida and Texas at the direct expense of left-leaning, high-tax, high-regulation states California, doesn’t make an appearance in your article.

    Without points like this which fall on the other side of the political aisle, your article runs the risk of appearing exclusively partisan.

    Additionally, to strengthen your future arguments, I’d work on steel-manning your opponent’s positions. If you stick with the non-nuanced partisan language like “pro-discrimination against LGBTQ people” instead of representing the other side fairly with positive assumptions of intent, you will only ever be taken seriously by one side.

    People who aim to represent larger communities and who desire to enact meaningful change can’t generally afford to be seen as exclusively partisan. There’s some good stuff here, but I believe your arguments could be strengthened by being more proactive in your attempt to bring people together.

    • Jarathen
      Posted February 16, 2021 at 10:46 am

      The GOP platform is inherently discriminatory and punitive towards those outside of its prescribed societal roles, whether its transgender individuals or families who want a choice as to when they want to grow. To describe it as anything but would be dishonest. The GOP, including in Iowa, is much more concerned with passing laws that limit rights for people to live freely than it is with economic good and transparency. It’s the same old grift and cronyism Branstad oversaw, with little pushback from the public. Watch State Auditor Rob Sand, who called Reynolds out on misusing COVID relief funds for starters.

      • Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide
        Posted February 16, 2021 at 11:11 am

        With Pat Grassley and other homophobes in the legislature working to pass laws that further to divided the people, Iowa will be ranked alongside Alabama as the worst state for education. With Governor Reynolds working for profits over people and opening up the state to more deaths from coronavirus, Iowa and its nefarious governor are aping Governor Noem and South Dakota to push Iowa further into the abyss of the worst states in the union.

  • Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide
    Posted February 16, 2021 at 11:05 am

    I would find it hard to believe that anyone would ever move to Iowa given that Governor Reynold and the Republicans in the legislature have done everything they could to keep the pandemic growing and people dying in their lust for profits over people. Iowa is a state that offers nothing but hate, discrimination and bad schools as the theocracy of white Christian evangelicals poison all real learning.

  • Nick
    Posted February 16, 2021 at 1:28 pm

    I would not recommend people come to this state to do business, period. So, this article is right one. Too hostile, too conservative, too protective, too unfriendly environment. Basically, they treat strangers the enemies. This is very contrary to Iowan people.

Comments are closed.

Wood: About that public narrative we’re crafting to attract out-of-state people to move to Des Moines | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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