CR businesses upbeat on city – minus floods

Downtown Cedar Rapids. PHOTO CR METRO ECONOMIC ALLIANCE

 

By Dave DeWitte
dave@corridorbusiness.com

The latest survey of Cedar Rapids busi­nesses found flood protection to be the largest single area of concern in an overall favorable business climate.

Twenty-eight percent of the 80 compa­nies surveyed onsite said they will be more likely to invest in Cedar Rapids after the completion of a long-awaited flood pro­tection system, according to David Con­nolly, the city’s economic development specialist who led the survey this spring.

The survey found 97 percent of re­spondents considered the city’s overall business climate “good” or “excellent,” Mr. Connolly said, an improvement of about 10 percent from the inaugural sur­vey in 2016.

Workforce retention emerged as the primary challenge facing businesses, Mr. Connolly said, whereas last year it had been attraction.

“Overall, the workforce issues are still of paramount importance to business – talent attraction, finding workers with the pre­cise set of in-demand skills,” Mr. Connolly explained. “Our labor market conditions have tightened over the last five years.”

Some of the survey’s other key findings:

  • Eight out of 10 companies surveyed thought the city’s business climate has improved in the past five years.
  • Nine out of 10 companies report sta­ble or improving profit margins over the last three years.
  • 44 percent of companies are interest­ed in expanding in Cedar Rapids in the next three years.
  • 59 percent are expecting to hold em­ployment the same.
  • 61 percent give the city’s quality of life a positive rating (good or excellent).

 

Mr. Connolly said the data will help inform a business advisory council that will be convened later this year to advise City Manager Jeff Pomeranz as Cedar Rap­ids updates its strategic plan for economic development. The current plan runs from 2016-2018.

City leaders have begun deploying a permanent flood protection system to protect the city from the threat of flooding that resurfaced in September 2016, when a rising Cedar River forced the evacuation of much of downtown. However, the city still lacks the federal funding needed to complete the $630 million project in the forseeable future.

The city’s business survey contacted businesses of various sizes and from a range of industries; it also included about 40 different respondents from last year. Survey visits at 10 companies were coordi­nated with an ongoing survey of existing industries by the Cedar Rapids Metro Eco­nomic Alliance, with findings from both reported in June.

The alliance’s Existing Industry Report showed that while workforce availability remained problematic, there were hints of improvement from the previous survey. On a scale of one to seven, business lead­ers interviewed by the Economic Alliance ranked the city’s workforce available as 4.01, up 0.34 points from 2015.

The survey of 85 executives found ac­cess to exceptional education was one of the community’s highest assets, and airline passenger service is viewed favor­ably, receiving 4.97 points on the same one-to-seven scale.

Digging into data

Mike Lukan, who led the existing indus­tries survey, said the alliance is hopeful that its efforts in regional branding, pro­gramming and “overall quality of place ef­forts” are making a difference in address­ing the workforce challenge.

While the city’s survey found work­force was even more of a concern than in 2016, Mr. Connolly said the availability of qualified workers is an issue being felt across the nation. He said one challenge Cedar Rapids faces is in retention of the workers in the 19-24 cohort.

“When you look at the percentage of young adults we retain, it’s very low com­pared to the other five-year age cohorts,” he said, adding that when all age cohorts are combined, the city’s workforce retention performance balances out with the state.

One of Cedar Rapids’ strongest points was in workforce productivity, which Mr. Connolly said stood out as 29 percent above the national average, and high­er than Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska or Minnesota as a whole.

Ralph Russell was among the city council members pleased by the findings.

“I see this survey as the only thing that tells us real-time what’s happening in the community,” Mr. Russell said.

In response to a question from Mr. Rus­sell about what other insights the council could receive, Mr. Connolly said city staff are looking at using the kind of real-time data analytics it is using to attract retailers in other areas of its economic develop­ment program. The city also launched a website this year, www.economicdevelop­mentcr.com, to help attract new business­es and expanding existing businesses. One feature of the site is a data dashboard that provides indicators of economic perfor­mance for the metro area.