Iowa's top economic development leader outlined to a Quad-City crowd Thursday how Iowa's economy is being fueled by innovation, new investments and partnerships but also how the state's population must grow for continued success.
"When I came into this business it was all about location, location, location," Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham said during her keynote address at the 2019 Scott County Economic Development Summit. "Now it's all about workforce, workforce, workforce and who can solve that problem."
To a crowd of 125 Quad-City area participants representing economic development, government and business, Durham said companies are not just concerned with quantity of workers. "It's about the quality of that workforce, the productivity of that workforce. Do they have the critical thinking skills?"
At issue is the state's graying baby boomer population and Iowa college students leaving the state after graduation, said Durham, who also now is the Iowa Finance Authority director.
"One hundred people a day are exiting our factory floors and our companies because of the baby boom and we're not birthing enough babies...," she said during the luncheon at the Quad-Cities Convention Center, Bettendorf. "We have to grow Iowa's population."
She cited a study that shows nearly 27 percent of graduating college students say they plan to leave Iowa to pursue their careers. "I say good, great. Go learn some new things and give us your return address because you're going to come home."
The crowd chuckled as she pointed out the graduates would return "for free babysitting from your parents."
But for those Iowa graduates who are undecided, the state is hoping to attract them to stay by rolling out apprenticeships, internships and programs that showcase Iowa's businesses.
Durham said Iowa's communities also must meet the demand for new housing stock from single-family to multi-family, assisted living and affordable housing. "It's about building communities where people want to live," she said.
One of the workshop leaders, Grant Mente, director of the USDA's Iowa Rural Development, had a similar message during the summit as he promoted the agency's funding programs available to rural communities. "Our mission is to improve the lives and increase the populations in rural Iowa."
Through loan and grant programs, Rural Development assists Iowans in the areas of housing, community infrastructure, healthcare and utilities, including water infrastructure and broadband, high-speed internet access. Last year, the USDA's Rural Development invested $500 million in Iowa alone, he said after presenting at a break-out session.
The half-day summit also featured experts from Scott County's craft beverage and value-added agriculture industries. The event was presented by the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, Bi-State Regional Commission and Scott County. The county's board of supervisors launched the event in 2014 as part of a strategic plan to assist economic development across the county. This marked the second summit.
Introducing Durham before her keynote, Board Chairman Tony Knobbe named many of the business developments that have been added across the county because of the region's partnership with Iowa Economic Development Authority. Among them the new Kraft Heinz and Sterilite plants in Davenport, the future Anderson 400 business park in Princeton, an expansion at Arconic in Riverdale, Lewis Machine & Tool's new plant under construction in Eldridge and the TBK Sports Complex in Bettendorf.
In fact, Durham's trip to the Quad-Cities included a stop at the new Kraft Heinz plant, which received state incentives to build the new factor, as well as an overnight stay at The Current Hotel in downtown Davenport, which was built using Iowa historic tax credits.
After her speech, Durham said the community and economic development leaders "should feel good about what they've accomplished. They should celebrate what they've done, but keep looking to the future."