Q&A: Brian Crowe
Economic Development Strategist
Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance
By CBJ News Staff
Brian Crowe of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance is deeply embedded in economic development in the Corridor, collaborating with area employers and development partners. Mr. Crowe’s main charge is implementing the economic strategic plan for the Economic Development Innovation Council at the Economic Alliance. His challenges are a little different than those facing some of his peers across the country, however, including a workforce that hasn’t grown quite fast enough to suit employers and a struggling state ag economy.
With a background at CareerBuilder in Chicago and the Iowa Economic Development Authority in Des Moines, Mr. Crowe took time to explain how he approaches those challenges through collaboration, and how we can each help make the area’s economy stronger.
Tell us about your role with the Economic Alliance. What do your responsibilities currently involve?
As economic development strategist at the Economic Alliance, it is my responsibility to push the strategic plan we develop with our Economic Development Innovation Council. I keep an eye on best practices in economic development, look for opportunities for growth, create awareness for our market, and prepare for future growth, while at the same time identifying threats and opportunities with our existing businesses.
Cities in Linn County seem to be taking on more economic development work, with Cedar Rapids expanding its economic development staff, Robins creating an economic development agency and MEDCO taking a big role in Marion. Do these efforts overlap with the Economic Alliance, or do they complement the work you do?
Economic development is a relationship business. We spend a lot of time working with all the regional economic development organizations and groups. The collective efforts ensure we are all delivering growth opportunities for our cities and region at a very high level.
The more sophisticated efforts at the local level really allow us to market regionally and sell locally, which is always a best practice. Whether in marketing and promotion, hosting prospective companies, working to land growth from existing industry, hosting real estate or tax consultants to the area, having a regional focus makes good sense.
In my role, I focus a lot on collaboration and relationships with businesses, local government, state government, as well as these local economic development organizations. The more people we have working to break down barriers to jobs and business success, the better.
How do you address persistent concerns about the tight labor supply in the Corridor, which seems to be making it difficult for large employers to recruit?
Furthering workforce opportunities is an issue we hear about very regularly, and we hear it from many different perspectives. Some companies tell us that they have issues attracting or retaining very specific positions; others tell us they would add more employees if there was a larger population to draw from. We also hear the other side of that argument – companies that tell us they never have an issue filling a position, or they never need to advertise positions. We also hear from companies who say they plan continued growth in our market due to the work ethic, morals and values of our workers.
We use data and analysis to show current and potential employers that within our market, it is not impossible to hire. We work with data companies, colleges, universities, and state agencies to provide us the data to make the justification for headcount growth.
Until the Diamond V announcement recently, we hadn’t heard much on new manufacturing investment in the area for a while. Is this unique to our area, or has the strong dollar made it harder to attract foreign investment from manufacturers?
Specifically to foreign investment, yes, the dollar has slowed foreign investment. However, I think in general, it has been a slow economic recovery for many companies. We work with many businesses in their planning efforts, who may seek out what an expansion or new operation would look like in our region. However global and national issues like low gas prices, low commodity prices, the election, and the value of the dollar are keeping many of those we talk to on the sidelines. Now that we have resolved several of these issues, hopefully we will see some capital investment and job growth.
What are some of the things you are doing to improve business retention in the Corridor?
At the Economic Alliance, we do a variety of outreach with interstate commerce companies year over year to measure their satisfaction with the area and look for strengths and threats. We track satisfaction with workforce, product growth, research and development, sales, expansions, policy concerns and more. We then categorize high-growth potential and high-threat potential, and focus our limited resources in these spaces. We direct our efforts where our work can have the most impact.
It often seems like the focus is always on cost when businesses make a siting decision for a plant or headquarters. Has the strong quality-of-life rankings for the Corridor made it easier to market?
The surveys that bring attention to our high quality of life are important, and it’s good to have those strong accolades. They help build awareness for our cities and towns around the country, and give people positive impressions of our communities, whether or not people have visited here before.
That being said, it is also very important to have community champions – people who will take our positive community message into business meetings, and with friends and family, wherever they may be. It is equally important to have good workforce data, good utility prices, good access to road and rail carriers, supply chain, university and college expertise in our targeted industry markets and more.
Can you talk about the progress with the joint venture between the Economic Alliance and the ICAD Group? What kind of progress has been made on that, and how will it affect economic development efforts in the coming years?
The joint venture (JV) has a very clear focus, which is currently workforce attraction and retention. The JV will target new business and lead marketing for the region. It is also responsible for executing the regional plan for economic development, as well as the regional workforce plan. Ultimately this will allow for us to market more broadly and sell locally, which makes economic development sense.
Hometown: Downers Grove, Illinois
Education: B.A., University of Illinois at Chicago
Family: Wife, Amanda; two daughters, ages 4 and 5
Interests: Family, travel, bourbon, Chicago Cubs, Iowa trivia, Romania/Eastern European history and culture, bass guitar