More than 100 policymakers and economic development leaders from across the U.S. and Europe came together last month for a Transatlantic Symposium to examine the links between local economic conditions and support for populism — which also fuels nationalist and isolationist movements — in post-industrial regions.
By sharing success stories from our own communities, we explored the policies and local initiatives that accelerated economic growth and opportunity — and how to replicate these efforts to advance democratic norms on both sides of the Atlantic.
Representing Greater Des Moines, we shared our community’s journey to become recognized as a breakout city on the forefront of America’s economic recovery, as recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, due in part to significant growth in population, gross domestic product and employment compared to our peers. Fueled by regional collaboration and an unwavering focus, Greater Des Moines’ success is worth celebrating but far from complete. Like transformations in Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and even East Berlin, our economic stability hinges on tight connections and civility between urban and rural neighbors.
Since establishing Des Moines’ vision 10 years ago through Capital Crossroads, our leaders have remained united around a bold mission to leverage Central Iowa’s key advantages while addressing challenges that may limit our ability to thrive in the future. Today, Greater Des Moines counts hundreds of successes, including establishing a hub for agricultural technology advancement and completing infrastructure, environmental and community-wellness improvements. The area continues to invest in strategies to improve quality of life through placemaking, wellness, inclusion and equity initiatives, which will also attract and retain younger generations. Recently, the Lauridsen Skatepark, the largest skatepark in the country, opened and immediately hosted the Olympic-qualifying Dew Tour event. Other major placemaking projects in the works include the Central Iowa Water Trails project, which will enhance recreational amenities across 150 miles of waterways, and the planned Pro Iowa soccer stadium and Global Plaza, which will transform the region and create activities that all can enjoy.
No longer known as a “fly-over city,” Des Moines engages with global markets and advances new sectors like tourism and renewables. The planned expansion of the Des Moines International Airport will only accelerate growth. Industry-leading companies, including Corteva Agriscience, Meredith Corp., John Deere, Principal Financial, and World Food Prize Foundation, benefit from access to a diverse workforce through Future Ready Des Moines that aims to increase residents with postsecondary degrees and other skilled credentials to 75% by 2025. In collaboration with surrounding rural communities, the area is delivering on its sustainability commitments through investments such as the previously mentioned Central Iowa Water Trails and the 90-mile Raccoon River Trail.
Our small-town neighbors located along Central Iowa’s Lincoln Corridor are emerging as their own success stories for rural transformation and sustainability by diversifying job opportunities, creating inclusive environments and connecting adjacent communities. Notably, Jefferson and Perry invested in their future by expanding their technological infrastructure and welcoming their fast-growing immigrant population. Software-development training hubs, known as The Forge, transformed these small towns into an epicenter for creativity and technology. Graduates gain access to higher-paying jobs and to recruiters from Accenture, Facebook, Microsoft, among others. In addition, as an influx of young families dropped the median age to 30 years old and 36% of its residents identified as Hispanic, Perry embraced new opportunities to educate and include second-generation Hispanic residents into its diversifying workforce like those through The Forge.
While we were honored to share these examples with our economic development colleagues, we also listened closely to their unique stories to identify some common threads:
First, embrace what you have and protect it. In Iowa, we are far from sandy beaches that typically draw residents and tourists alike. However, our river and bike trail systems are enjoyed by more than 300,000 people each year and generate $5.6 million in revenue for our state.
Next, leave no one behind. Our German colleagues shared their incredible journey following the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Germans could not rebuild alone. It took the commitment and help of their neighbors in West Germany and the European Union to ensure all communities could flourish.
Finally, own it. Only through personal commitment and engagement can meaningful change start and grow.
Looking ahead, we recognize that focus and social cohesion across cultures, businesses and governments remain the catalyst to maintaining a distinctive economic path and accelerating regional growth. At a time of heightened negativity and division, we must focus on creating and perpetuating synergies among all stakeholders — public or private, urban or rural, red or blue. While challenges are real and often hard felt, we must continue to pursue our vision and cultivate civility. If we have learned nothing from the past year’s global pandemic, it is that we prevail when we are united together.
Jay Byers is president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Paul Schickler, is owner of III Ag and former president of DuPont Pioneer (now Corteva).