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Breathe Life Into Your Town

David Yepsen

Des Moines Register

April 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The Federal Home Loan Bank brought a group of bankers and community leaders to Des Moines last week to discuss ways to improve Iowa's economy.

Since springtime is always a period of renewal in Iowa, it's a good time for everyone not just the bankers to think about what we can do to make our communities better.

For openers, there's good news. Many areas are doing well. There's growth, pride and optimism. That wasn't always true 20 years ago in Iowa.

It's also true we can't use those successes as reasons to rest on our accomplishments. Community development is a little like the evolution of animals: They either adapt to their changing environment or they die. Communities that aren't constantly improving and becoming more competitive won't survive.

It means Iowa's communities need:

Homegrown think tanks. Towns need broad-based groups that meet regularly to discuss and plan the future of the community. What are the problems and population trends that affect the town? What are our goals? What's our action plan?

Over the years I've noticed lots of Iowa towns have museums, which is great. But folks should obsess as much about their future as they do their past. If your town has a museum to focus on the past, it should also have a "think tank" to focus on the future.

Help from outsiders. Maybe it's a hired consultant, or somebody from the state, the universities or development groups. Outsiders can tell us things we may not want to hear about ourselves, offer perspective and help with marketing strategies once we've got something to sell. My two favorite development books for Iowans to read are Ernesto Sirolli's "Ripples from the Zambezi" and Richard Florida's "Rise of the Creative Class."

Don't wait for governments. Governments can help. And they sure can hinder. They can never substitute for local effort. No one at the courthouse, Statehouse or White House is going to save your town. You are.

Get on the Internet. What is your community doing to become a wireless one?

Embrace diversity. It's not a bunch of political correctness to say we need to be more welcoming of people who don't look or act like the rest of us people like immigrants, minorities, or gays and lesbians. It's our economic survival.

Iowa must become more hospitable to attract more people to fill jobs here, or to locate or expand businesses here.

The fact is, the vast majority of us living in Iowa were born here. If we fail to welcome outsiders, many of our towns are destined to become little more than inbred, lily-white backwaters.

Support entrepreneurs. We all know Iowans aren't big risk takers, and we can debate forever why. That's why we need to make a special effort to nurture those entrepreneurs trying to start and develop new enterprises. If local bankers won't give them loans, let's find someone who can.

Develop community foundations. Thanks to Iowa's aging population and the exodus of our young, a lot of money is leaving the state as our seniors die. Foundations are a way to keep some of Iowa's wealth at home. Lawyers and tax preparers need to make sure their clients are considering this option.

Keep hope alive. Some Americans are getting fed up with the hassles of urban life. And $3-a-gallon gas for a long commute may encourage the feeling. That means some people will be candidates for moving to slower-paced Iowa, where there's still time to smell the flowers in the spring.