IEDA Director Debi Durham excited about Marshalltown’s future after Thursday visit

T-R PHOTOS BY ROBERT MAHARRY — Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Director Debi Durham was the keynote speaker during the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce’s second annual Economic Outlook Breakfast held at Midnight Gardens on Thursday morning.

While growth goals for Marshalltown and the surrounding areas are often discussed in the abstract or as some faraway prospect, Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Executive Director Debi Durham witnessed several concrete examples of progress made in the community during a full slate of events here Thursday, including the second annual Economic Outlook Breakfast, a site certification announcement for 95 acres of land just east of JBS and a ribbon cutting for the upper level housing above the renovated Willard’s and Hopkins buildings on West Main Street.

Economic Outlook Breakfast

After some brief opening remarks from Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO John Hall, Dennis Jordan of Alliant Energy formally introduced Durham as the keynote speaker of the Economic Outlook Breakfast hosted at Midnight Gardens on South 17th Avenue, and her speech was translated into Spanish in real time by Midnight Gardens Owner Luisa Ortega.

Jordan highlighted his company’s special relationship with Marshalltown, and, to a large round of applause, compared Durham favorably to Iowa Hawkeye basketball superstar Caitlin Clark, who was set to break the all-time NCAA scoring record during a game that he planned to attend Thursday night.

Marshalltown City Councilor Greg Nichols, left, and Mayor Joel Greer, center, interact with Durham at the conclusion of the breakfast.

“I can’t think of two better ambassadors for the state of Iowa than Debi Durham and Caitlin Clark, so this is a twofer for me,” Jordan said.

Durham, who is in her 13th year leading the IEDA, thanked Jordan for “the nicest introduction she’d ever had” before acknowledging a colleague, Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs Commandant Todd Jacobus, Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) and Arts+Culture Alliance Executive Director Amber Danielson, who is serving on the Iowa Arts Council Board of Directors.

Durham went on to speak for about a half hour, outlining her approach to growth and fostering the right environment for business and community development in Iowa — citing amenities like creative placemaking, arts and culture, waterparks and more as key pieces of the puzzle.

“Why is that important? Because the biggest obstacle or barrier to growth is population. We have a population problem. We had it pre-COVID, and we have it today,” she said. “But at the end of the day, (in) our programs and our policies, we need to be focused on our citizens. Everything we do is people centric, meaning that I don’t believe all development is good development. I don’t believe all jobs are good jobs. We need those jobs that really raise the standard of living for Iowans.”

Iowa’s three biggest economic sectors, she noted, are large manufacturing, biosciences and finance and insurance. Durham discussed the shift from the need for a four-year degree to two-year and certificate programs that can prepare students for high-paying positions in the trades with little or no debt as well as the current state of the job market.

Owner/Developer Janelle Carter, holding scissors, was all smiles after cutting the ribbon on the upper story housing project above the Hopkins and Willard’s buildings on West Main Street. The Chamber and Marshalltown Central Business District have occupied the Hopkins building since last summer, and the Willard’s building has additional retail space still available.

Although the state unemployment has consistently been lower than the national average and is currently hovering around three percent, Durham pointed to the labor participation rate — which, during the pandemic, dropped from its second in the nation rank of just over 70 percent to about 66 percent and has ticked back up slightly since — as a cause for greater concern, especially as young men between 25 and 34 have exited the workforce.

“This is a national trend. Where did they go? Some people said they’re back in their parents’ basements. I don’t know if that’s true. Some people said they got burnt out during COVID. I don’t know where they are, but they need to find their way back to work,” she said. “So if you have one of them, we have opportunities for them. So just reach out.”

The pandemic, however, also changed the way young people think about where they live, and in surveys, many indicated that they would be willing to relocate if the right combination of economic vitality, affordability, recreational opportunities and public safety. Durham pointed to unrest in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago as proof that policies matter.

She admitted that many of the survey respondents weren’t overly familiar with Iowa at first, but Gov. Kim Reynolds used American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars for a marketing campaign aimed to appeal to potential residents from other states. Overall net migration is up over 9,000 people since the pandemic began, and the top states were California, Illinois, Nebraska, Hawaii and New York. Later in the speech, she broke down the legislature’s state income tax cuts and how she believed they were convincing more people to stay in Iowa after retirement, even if it will never have the weather of Florida or Arizona.

Durham also touted major state investments in housing, childcare, commercial aviation and broadband as evidence that Iowa’s strategies are working. Promoting homeownership, she said, is a major goal, but programs need to be “constantly re-evaluated” to ensure they are working effectively. She also took aim at residents who oppose affordable housing projects on the grounds that they don’t want the people who live inside them in their neighborhood.

Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO John Hall spoke briefly during a site certification celebration event held at MARSHALLTOWN Co. on Thursday morning. The site is a 95-acre plot of land just east of JB

“Who is the face of affordable housing? It’s your pharmacy techs, it’s your nursing aides, teacher aides. It is the very people that kept us open during COVID — grocery store clerks — when most of us had jobs where we didn’t have to be in the office or interact with people,” she said. “And I would say as a Christian and as an Iowan, I think it’s a moral imperative that anyone good enough to work in our community should be good enough to live in our community.”

Green energy is another “calling card” for Iowa, according to Durham, and she sensed a major opportunity in hydrogen around the corner along with major innovations in agriculture and manufacturing. Automation isn’t a concept to fear, she contended, as it is helping employees obtain new training and make more money.

As she wrapped up her remarks, Durham shouted out stalwart Marshalltown businesses like Emerson and Lennox and noted that a vast majority of economic development in Iowa comes from existing companies expanding.

“If we’re not taking care of our backyard to make sure they can find workers, to make sure they’re competitive, some other economic development in another state is happy to do that for them,” she said.

Durham concluded with a testimonial for arts and culture as a key piece of the growth puzzle and described how she pushed for Destination Iowa grants totaling $2 million in the Linn Creek District after visiting Marshalltown for the first Economic Outlook Breakfast last year.

“The reason (the grant application wasn’t going to be approved) was because we didn’t understand the story. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a good project, but too many of the scorers said ‘It’s a splash pad and we do those everywhere. How is this a Destination Iowa?’ But when you weave in the story about the diversity in your community… You were intentional about it, and you were really trying to do a gathering place for all of your citizens,” Durham said of the Water Plaza project. “That spoke to us, and that’s a winning application.”

There were no questions from the audience, but Durham did take time to sit down with the T-R briefly before shuffling off to her next stop. She discussed the difference in strategies for areas that are currently rapidly growing organically — Des Moines and the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor — and other communities like Marshalltown where it’s happening at a less breakneck pace.

“You are one of the pilot communities we’re working with, so that means it’s not just about attracting people to work at places like Emerson or Lennox and all the companies that’ll be involved in that, RACOM, you’ve got so many here, but it’s really about selling them on the community,” she said. “I think you’ve done some amazing things. I was here with the governor just a couple of days after the tornado, and just to come back every single year and see the progress that’s been made is really heartwarming.”

She praised Marshalltown’s arts and culture scene, housing developments, hospital investment, upcoming site certification announcement and partnership with major employers as evidence that the city is “positioned for growth.”

“There’s just all kinds of great things that are going on (and) really strong collaboration,” she said.

Site certification celebrated at MARSHALLTOWN Co.

Local leaders celebrated another Marshalltown milestone during Durham’s visit just after 11 a.m. as site certification on a 95-acre plot of land just east of JBS was celebrated — the first site ever to receive the designation here — during a brief event at the MARSHALLTOWN Co. headquarters on South 8th Avenue. MARSHALLTOWN President/CEO Joe Carter clarified that his company is not directly involved in the development but was nonetheless happy to host the ceremony.

What is a certified site? The IEDA defines it as a potential industrial development location “filling the demand for project-ready industrial sites (and) making the decision to locate in Iowa easy.” “Iowa’s Certified Sites program parallels a typical site location process. A credentialed Iowa Certified Site has relevant site-related data and documentation accumulated and is designated as ‘development ready,'” the website reads.

Hall, who received a glowing introduction from Carter, thanked city staff members like Public Works Director Heather Thomas and Marshalltown Water Works Director Shelli Lovell along with Alliant Energy and Heart of Iowa Communications for their efforts in moving the development along.

“This is marking a moment. We know that the prep work necessary to develop sites for large scale industrial development takes a lot of time and a lot of effort,” he said. “It’s not the groundbreaking ceremony or the ribbon cutting ceremony, but to not recognize the amount of time, energy and work that goes into just getting to this stage would be a disservice to those that have helped make this happen.”

Durham provided a bit of backstory on the site certification program and how it benefits communities attempting to lure major employers, describing it as “an extremely rigorous” process.

“It’s not just about business development from taxation to regulatory to having certified sites and infrastructure to serve it. It’s about building communities where people want to live,” she said. “As we drive around the community and tour the community, and we’re gonna be doing more of that today, you check all of the boxes.”

The IEDA, Durham said, will be actively marketing the site in partnership with the city and the Chamber, and Hall promised there would be more to come.

“We as a community are bullish on our growth and our growth opportunities sitting here in the central part of the state. That’s why I’m here is to help pursue that growth on behalf of the community,” he said.

Jordan then wrapped up the celebration with more predictions of good news on the horizon, noting that Alliant owns land in Marshalltown and is in active negotiations with several prospective employers.

“It does demonstrate that if you’ve got a certified site that’s ready to go, it will get the attention of site selectors and of companies, and it really does move at the speed of business,” Jordan said.

Hall asked those in attendance to remember the moment and felt optimistic that projects on the site could be announced in the relatively near future.

“We in Marshalltown are open for business. We’re gonna attract business, and we’re gonna be successful as we chart our growth course as a community,” Hall said.

Hopkins-Willard ribbon cutting

Durham enjoyed a working lunch at Wayward Social and had more time to take Marshalltown in before arriving at her final destination for the day, the Willard’s and Hopkins buildings at 34 and 36 W. Main St.

Janelle Carter, who redeveloped the properties in partnership with the Cutler Brothers of West Des Moines and received an IEDA grant for the project, cut the ribbon on the project now that the 13 upper story apartments are officially open and ready to rent — including three low-to-moderate income units. With the Chamber and the Marshalltown Central Business District already moved into the Hopkins building, she will now look to fill the two remaining retail spaces inside of what used to be Willard’s.

Three tenants have already moved in, and Carter hopes to welcome more of them soon. She also hopes it will be a harbinger for more downtown redevelopment in the future.

“I definitely see it as a catalyst because it already is. The Chamber being here is a wonderful thing. To have the Chamber on our Main Street where they can feel the heartbeat of the city is really important, so we’re definitely seeing it. I think it’s nice to have some life in the downtown in the evenings too.”

In summing up the eventful day, Hall returned to his favorite mantra.

“It really was another great day for Marshalltown. Not only were we able to bring a number of our community leaders together to hear and understand the vision and direction for the state of Iowa, but we also got to celebrate two key developments in our comprehensive economic development strategy,” he said. “Projects like these are important as we continue to march forward to a stronger and more prosperous Marshalltown and Marshall County.”


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