Johnson County recently adopted a 2022 Economic Development Plan that focuses on opportunities for the unincorporated area, villages and small towns of the county. While new and forward-thinking, the plan also builds on existing local, regional, state and federal initiatives.
The plan incorporates input from nearly 40 stakeholders and has 16 goals. Several are already underway or about to launch. One project that we are excited about is the county working with a local firm on a rural broadband study. The outcome will help residents in small towns and rural areas to work from home, educate from home and conduct health care from home as easily as residents in the metro area.
The plan supports development that will increase the local property tax base and create good-paying jobs. It will do so with a focus on equity and inclusivity as well as sustainability and resiliency. The plan also will lead to expanded partnerships between the county and small cities and create opportunities for public–private collaborations. Given the plan’s rural focus, local foods and agritourism are among the top priorities.
The board of supervisors has jurisdiction over only the unincorporated areas of Johnson County. Partnerships with small towns will be voluntary and take place if supported by the city councils. The metropolitan (metro) area of Coralville, Iowa City, North Liberty, Tiffin and University Heights has plans and policies in place to support economic development, and the county-led plan does not seek to take away from that. The board of supervisors, in partnership with the Iowa City Area Development (ICAD) group, wants to address the real need to uplift those areas outside the metro. Thus, the vision of the plan is to ensure equitable economic development and opportunities for everyone in Johnson County, in conjunction with work already being accomplished.
Developing programs and capacity for sustainable economic growth is critical. Efforts will include tapping into local resources, particularly the expertise and entrepreneurial spirit of Johnson County residents. One goal of the plan is for the county to partner with an existing microloan program to support women, minority and immigrant entrepreneurs, or to create a new program.
Another key interaction will be for the Planning, Development and Sustainability Department to serve as a resource to rural communities and small towns in their decision-making process. For instance, advising on how climate change affects business goals and how to ensure resiliency and adaptation can help ensure Johnson County attracts and sustains quality jobs.
Johnson County is partnering with ICAD to create a rural–focused economic development position that will work directly with existing businesses, entrepreneurs, farmers and others seeking opportunity and growth. We are also eager for the board of supervisors to collaborate with the small towns and their councils in developing public–private partnerships to help communities remain places where residents want to stay.
Affordable housing and child care are essential; where people make their home, existing businesses will thrive and new ones will come. Leveraging the county’s debt capacity is potentially one way to support the infrastructure required to attract development of affordable housing.
The county plan also advises creating a local food plan and increasing engagement with organizations such as Think Iowa City to promote the agriculturally-based tourism industry in Johnson County. From orchards to wineries, agritourism can be part of helping our non-metro area grow. We also want to help our local growers continue to expand and support the local farm-to-market, including restaurants, schools and other institutions.
To learn more about the 2022 Johnson County Economic Development Plan: Opportunities for the Unincorporated Area, Villages and Smaller Towns, visit johnsoncountyiowa.gov/economic-development.
Josh Busard, AICP,is director of the Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability Department, www.johnsoncountyiowa.gov/planning.