DES MOINES — State lawmakers think Iowa needs to upgrade the image that greets motorists along highway entry points at the borders.
“I’m kind of embarrassed that when you come into Iowa at every different angle we’ve got different messaging,” said Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville. “We’ve got Fields of Opportunities — that’s not even our state slogan anymore.”
Koelker, who works in tourism and economic development when the Iowa Legislature is not in session, led a Senate Commerce subcommittee last week on a bill she introduced that seeks a $350,000 state general fund appropriation to remove Iowa’s current 68 highway welcome signs and replace them with new “different and distinct” message boards.
“I filed this just to kind start the spark of conversation. This isn’t obviously a hill that I plan to die on, but this is something that I think is important, that we make sure as a state that we upgrade our image,” she said. “I’m not shaming by any means our imaging or our branding, that’s not what I’m trying to do with this. But I am trying to create a little bit of momentum and maybe there are partners out there to make that happen.”
At first blush, the idea of giving Iowa an image makeover drew a positive bipartisan response, with subcommittee member Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, saying he would like to see the state use it as a way to engage young people by soliciting ideas from the public for a new welcome sign design similar to the way the Iowa Department of Transportation sought proposals for license plate designs.
“I think it’s always a good idea to put a new face and a fresh coat of paint,” said Bisignano. “I’d like to see Iowans design this. I don’t think it ought to be a Madison Avenue design. I think it ought to get real Iowans talking about Iowa and how very simply we want to welcome people to the state. Personally, if I had my way, it would be people under 21. I would want the young people to come up with it and they had a piece of it.”
Steve Gent of the Iowa Department of Transportation said Iowa currently has 68 welcome signs at entry points along interstate, primary and U.S. highways — 13 that are 16-feet-by-14-feet overhead or side-mounted interstate signs and 55 that are 8-feet-by-7-feet signs — all but one with the message: “The people of Iowa welcome you” along with the image of the sun, a “green, slashy stripe with the word Iowa in cursive letters and Fields of Opportunities.” The only exception is a welcome sign entering Clinton via U.S. 30 that has a locally generated message, he noted.
“Any time anybody is coming into Iowa on a primary highway they’re going to see one of these ‘Welcome to Iowa’ signs,” he said.
Gent noted the signs have been up for about 19 years (dating to when former Gov. Tom Vilsack unveiled the Field of Opportunities slogan at the 1999 Iowa State Fair) and likely need an upgrade given their life expectancy is about 20 years.
He said officials from Iowa DOT, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the state Department of Cultural Affairs held preliminary discussions aimed at replacing the signs but the discussion was shelved when the COVID-19 pandemic moved into Iowa about a year ago. At that time, the replacement cost estimate was about $275,000, he said.
“We hadn’t even talked to the governor about it” when the discussion was tabled, Gent said.
Part of last Thursday’s subcommittee discussion focused on the fact that no one in attendance or participating via Zoom link could say what Iowa’s current slogan is — something indicating that Iowa has a uniform branding deficiency, subcommittee member Sen. Mike Klemish, R-Spillville, noted.
“I find it ironic that no one can say what the slogan is,” he said. “It shows it needs some attention.”
Craig Patterson, a lobbyist for the Travel Federation of Iowa, said the organization supports Senate File 404, noting “when people are coming into the state that’s the face, that’s the first thing they see is the welcome sign and so I think there should be an effort to upgrade that and make that face be something that we’re proud of.
“There are a lot that are really outdated and need to be addressed,” Patterson added.
“Iowa’s previous state slogan was ‘Fields of Opportunities.’ Our state marketing campaign, which launched in 2019, is called ‘This is Iowa,’” said Staci Hupp Ballard, chief strategic communications officer for the state Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority.
She said the agencies view the work to refresh Iowa’s welcome signs as an opportunity to renew the conversation on a state slogan for Iowa.
“We had to hit the pause button because of the pandemic and look forward to picking up where we left off,” she added. “Clearly, we think it’s time to replace the signs and get a new, fresh slogan in there. We thank the senator for introducing it and moving it forward.”