Iowa Business Council Report Identifies Areas of Improvement in State’s Economy

March 3, 2020

Ames Tribune: Michael Crumb

Iowa is a great place to live and work, but the state needs to do more to be more competitive with other states in the country if it’s going to attract more people to live and work here, leaders of the Iowa Business Council said Friday.

The Iowa Business Council released its annual competitive dashboard earlier this month, measuring how Iowa is doing in five metrics that measure the state’s overall economic health. Those categories are economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness, and demographics and diversity. In all the categories Iowa ranked average, except for demographics and diversity, where it ranked poor.

The nonpartisan council, founded in 1985, is comprised of members in each of the state’s 99 counties, with member companies employing more than 163,000 people with a payroll of more than $7.5 billion. The group had more than $3.2 billion capital investments in 2019, $1.5 billion on research and development, contributed more than $76 million to charity and spent more than $26 million in education and training. It also releases its economic dashboard each year to evaluate the state’s economic well-being.

Reynolds Cramer, CEO and president of Boone-based Fareway Stores Inc. and a member of the council, said average rankings in areas, such as economic growth, education, and workforce, governance and health and wellness, is “disappointing.”

“It sets the tone for the state and the people who live here that we have things we need to do to get better than average,” said Cramer, who called the state’s poor ranking in demographics and diversity, “unfortunate.”

Joe Murphy, the council’s executive director, spoke to the Ames Economic Development Commission Board Friday morning, and later in the day said during an interview with the Tribune that the dashboard helps business leaders take action and propose policies to make the necessary improvements.

“This report is meant to highlight areas that we can improve on,” Murphy said.

A positive finding in the report, Murphy said, was the state’s gross state product, which remained consistent in 2019 compared to the year before.

“In a year with so many trade disputes and horrific weather events, the fact we were able to stay consistent and not lose ground is a telling point on how resilient the Iowa economy is,” Murphy said.

Cramer said his company has taken measures in recent years, such as restricting and banning smoking on its Boone campus, to help improve employee health, but Fareway also partners with local healthcare organizations such as Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames for a bigger local impact rather than joining a larger, broader initiative.

Murphy said the council partners with health and wellness groups across the state and is a strong proponent of increased mental health funding, which he said was, “in our legislative agenda for the first time this year.”

Murphy said paying attention and working to improve employee well-being, while “outside of the traditional business area,” is the “right thing to do.”

The council is also continuing its support of comprehensive immigration reform to help create a better path to citizenship for professionals seeking to come to Iowa to work from other countries.

Cramer described the current path to citizenship as “going down a tunnel where there is no light at the end. It’s very difficult and cumbersome.”

He said many people who come to the country on a work visa find themselves in limbo, not knowing what their future will hold.

“I wish the path could be made more simple (with more) consistency, (that) would be the best thing going,” Cramer said.

Murphy said he hopes people don’t focus too much on the numbers contained in the report, but instead on the importance of measuring the state’s overall economic health.

“Iowa is a great state to live in,” he said. “It gets high marks, and things are getting accomplished, but what are we going to do to get people to live here and work here? It starts with good housing, daycare opportunities, services, education, and to me that’s what I hope people will take away from this, that they don’t get focused on a number, but instead why we’re talking about these things.”

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