CBJ’s 15th Anniversary: How has the Corridor changed?

Intro by Katharine Carlon

Fifteen years ago, the idea of the Corridor was mostly that – an exciting concept sparked by author Richard Florida, who preached the gospel of regionalism, and got local leaders thinking.

But the idea gathered momentum – at first slowly, through an informal “creative economy group” of business leaders from both ends of the Corridor, and then quickly, when the devastating floods of 2008 knit the area together out of tragedy and necessity, cementing the growing realization that communities could accomplish more pulling together than working separately.

Today, the ambitious ICR Iowa initiative to treat the Corridor’s seven-county area as a single economic development block, or the decision by Cedar Rapids and Iowa City leaders to release joint legislative priorities feels seamless and organic – it just makes sense. But those who watched it happen say progress did not happen overnight, nor without bumps along the way.

The CBJ asked 10 business leaders who were there how it all happened, how the region has changed in the past 15 years and what needs to happen to push it forward into the future. Read what they have to say and feel free to weigh in with your own perspectives on the CBJ’s Facebook and Twitter pages. We also invite you to look for more regional viewpoints in this fall’s Corridor 2.0 issue, out Nov. 18.

Barriers broken, but more left to do
Bob Downer
Member, Meardon, Sueppel & Downer PLC

Although much of the change over the past 15 years has been in response to two natural disasters – the 2008 flood and the 2006 Iowa City tornado – the growth that occurred as a result has had a positive impact throughout the region. All affected communities have had to work cooperatively in order to effect recovery, with one result being that both actual and perceived barriers created by too many local government units, with overlapping boundaries and services, have been lessened.

My hope would be that both Linn and Johnson counties would establish home rule charter commissions to explore possibilities for further collaboration and efficiency, as has been done in Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Nashville and elsewhere. This has helped spur growth in those communities, and could, among other benefits, bring favorable attention to our region for being innovative and forward-thinking. The structure of our county government badly needs to be modernized!

A decade of learning about ourselves
Kate Minette
Former Pearson executive and community volunteer

The 2008 floods throughout the region certainly resulted in tragic losses for businesses and homeowners alike. What has resulted from that disastrous experience, however, has been not only significant growth, but a striking recognition of just who we are as a people and what this entire region has to offer.

As individuals and communities, we have demonstrated “the stuff we are made of,” our business acumen, our creativity. This sense of pride, whether new or reignited, has resulted in an exciting buzz for our organizations, the arts community and nonprofits. I should not forget to mention the generosity of spirit – in contributions and time – that I’ve been privileged to witness.

Shifting to a more regional mindset
Barry Boyer
Former Van Meter executive
Owner, Marion Process Solutions

My wife Gilda and I have been blessed to travel widely, and it’s given us a different perspective on our Iowa home – a place we continue to love because of the people in our region. We’ve seen examples of communities that have made tremendous progress in attracting and retaining diverse and talented people and those that have lost ground, resting in the comfort of their past successes.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Marion’s State of the City address, where Mayor Nick AbouAssaly highlighted the city’s growth and community spirit. What was most impressive is that he went further and called for real unity in a regional approach. In my opinion, Mayor AbouAssaly understands the bigger picture – together we thrive and separately we fail to capture the real opportunity before us. Though much progress has been made throughout our region, we limit ourselves when we let squabbles between cities and counties define us. A job in Mt. Vernon is as good as a job in North Liberty, and any community in our region, for that matter. My hope is that we truly become even more blind to city and county boundaries and see a win for the region as the real measure of success.

An emerging sense of community
Duane Smith
CEO, TrueNorth Companies

I recently read a book titled “Well Being” by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. The authors identified five essential elements of what contributes to your well-being over a lifetime. The first four are ones that we generally identify with – career, social, financial and physical – but the fifth, community well-being, can make the difference between a good life and a great life.

As I look at what has been accomplished over the last 15 years in the Corridor, I am most proud of the sense of community that has been developed. It’s inspiring to hear feedback from people like Lori Sundberg [president, Kirkwood Community College] and Hugh Ekberg [president and CEO, CRST International], who are relatively new to the community, on the sense of belonging they already have in our community. As leaders, we must realize that the time and money we put into our cultural and philanthropic endeavors are investments in our community and our people, not an expense. Thanks to the CBJ for all you do to make our community a special place.

Expanding opportunities could lift all boats
Les Garner
President & CEO, Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation

Over the last 15 years, we have seen the development of a more vibrant sense of community across the Corridor. There are commitments to arts and culture, expanding opportunities for all residents and improving educational achievement. We have seized opportunities for collaboration that now position us to be competitive in the competitive global economy for talent and investment.

Going forward, we must proceed with our region’s development in such a way that it ensures both economic growth and opportunity growth. We need to make sure that efforts to promote economic growth – for example, job creation or infrastructure development – are inclusive of all residents. To do this, we will need to advance policies, investments and programs that connect growth to opportunity. The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has been a convener and connector for many efforts to help our community achieve broad prosperity. We hope to see more of these efforts in the future.

Quality of life comes into focus
Nick AbouAssaly
Mayor, City of Marion
Member, Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman PLC

Our region has made great progress in recent years. Communities now recognize the important connection between quality of life and economic development and are undertaking initiatives to improve our curb appeal and make the area attractive for employers and the talent they need. Along with developing an ecosystem that helps businesses grow and succeed, we are focused on recreational opportunities, placemaking and new amenities that give residents and visitors more opportunities for entertainment and interaction with people, nature, art and culture. By giving people more opportunities to achieve their goals in both business and in life, we are better able to attract the workforce that will help employers, and our economy, grow and thrive.

The potential, however, is limited so long as we continue to act as a collection of neighboring towns who are competing with each other, and we fail to capitalize on the opportunities in coming together as one powerful and dynamic region. The success of individual communities in our region doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. When each corner of our region thrives, we all benefit. We serve our region well when we cheer for each other in our successes, look for opportunities to collaborate and work together to promote and grow our region.

Collaborations making us a cooler place
Josh Schamberger
President, Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Community collaborations that have positively affected the area have become commonplace over the past 15 years. From the standpoint of Think Iowa City, we can point to Herky on Parade, the Hawkeye Express, FRYfest, RUN CRANDIC, the Cyclo-cross World Cup and RAGBRAI overnights as events that do not happen without collaboration among municipalities, the University of Iowa, private sponsors and volunteers. The strong leadership of these partners to come together to lead change and growth creates a sense of place that people not only want to visit, but a place where they want to work and live.

As we look to continue to improve the region over the next 15 years, we’ll look toward collaborations that focus on usage of the river and trail systems that connect our communities. We will also continue to embrace the diverse array of cultures that make this place so unique.

Don’t get caught up in the branding
Jeff Disterhoft
President & CEO, GreenState Credit Union

While there have indeed been many and varied efforts to evolve, the similarities to the Corridor from 15 years ago would seem to exceed the differences. In some cases, we have a more unified approach to economic development, yet meaningful changes in our strategies remain difficult to come by. There are several logical reasons for that lack of change, ranging from differences in funding mechanisms to governance, but in the end, I think it would be difficult for most outsiders to quantify a great deal of meaningful change.

I think sometimes we get too caught up in the “brand” of our region as opposed to the caliber of talent therein. My sense is that good organizations go where they find good people, and less so because of any sort of marketing campaign. With that in mind, I’d love to see us do a better job of developing leadership within the region though a more proactive stance on sharing of best practices and collaborative leadership development. If we can cultivate strong leaders, we can cultivate strong talent. And if we cultivate strong talent, there’s no reason we can’t cultivate even more economic growth.

Positives and negatives after the flood
Mary Quass
President & CEO, NRG Media

Clearly the flood of 2008 changed the face of the riverfronts in the region, creating opportunities to reform and reshape neighborhoods for the better. In many cases, the areas that we knew and grew up around were vacant, providing a great canvas for new ideas and shapes to grow. The city of Cedar Rapids began to sprout trendy urban areas to attract people to the core of the city. New business has flourished and optimism followed.

At the same time, as the Corridor expands and cities and populations continue to grow together, neighborhood density is increasing in some areas, causing more unrest and leading many residents to feel less safe. Our locally owned and operated businesses and their leaders are also being replaced by fewer “home-based” leaders, who look at supporting local communities through access to their employees’ charitable time and contributions to national offices.

We must build on our foundation of being a community that welcomes and includes all, and continue to collaborate up and down the Corridor to take advantage of the increased scale of our communities, while maintaining the identity of individual cities with a universal desire to make this a place where people want to live, build a career and retire.

Searching for the next ‘big event’
Tom Cilek
Senior Vice President, West Bank

My involvement in the Corridor arose from my belief that economic growth would occur based on Richard Florida’s thesis of growth: use a regional approach and focus on the three key factors of talent, tolerance and technology.

In 2004, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs brought Kirk Watson, the former mayor of Austin, Texas, for a four-day tour of Iowa. It was a follow-up to 2003’s “Unconference,” which featured Mr. Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.” I asked Mr. Watson to speak at my Rotary club, and we attracted 200 people from both ends of the Corridor. And so the “creative economy group” was born! It was unstructured – no officers, no membership, no dues – and everyone was invited. We met every calendar quarter and relationships were created. Things happened outside the meetings.

From 2004 to about 2009, the creative economy group had connections and energy. But over time it wore out – maybe we all got old in some way.

Recently the Corridor has become very connected at the leadership level: the ICAD Group, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and ICR Iowa work closely together. But my instincts are that the Corridor is no longer “connected” – we are separate now and sort of compete. That doesn’t mean things are worse, just different.

I do miss the “good old days,” when we were making things happen every month, and finding young people and connecting them to the “big hitters.” In 2005, the creative economy group created the “big event,” bringing Mr. Florida to the Corridor, where he spoke to more than 1,000 people at Hancher Auditorium and attended a sold-out luncheon at the Marriott in Cedar Rapids. The event was created through the leadership of the “honchos” in both ends of the Corridor, and because of the energy and talent of then 21-year-olds like Amanda Styron West and Andy Stoll. Is it time for another “big event?”