More than a College Town: Ames Boasts Growth, Entrepreneurial Spirit in Business Community

February 8, 2019 | More than a college town

CJ Warner has fond memories of Ames.

In the late 1970s, when her husband was attending Iowa State University, Warner, who is now the new chief executive officer of Renewable Energy Group Inc., would often frequent Ames. A Midwesterner herself, Warner enjoyed the quaint and quiet college town. She remembers some of the more historic and industrial parts of Ames, but she admits she was a little more focused on the boy than on the city.

“I’m very glad to be back in the Midwest because this is my home, and being in Ames is particularly exciting because I used to visit my husband when we were courting each other,” said Warner, who worked in the San Diego area before moving to Ames. “It’s really fun to be back and see all of the growth as well as all of the things that have stayed the same. It’s fantastic.”

Since Warner last came to Ames, the city’s population has surged from about 47,000 in 1980 to nearly 70,000 people today. Paired with the growth seen at Iowa State University, both in enrollment and facilities, Ames has seen improvements across the board. That’s particularly true in the business community, where various developments — specifically the ISU Research Park, Main Street and Somerset — have made the city more than an ordinary college town.


Iowa State and Ames are intricately connected. Iowa State’s students live, work and shop in many Ames businesses, and those businesses also receive the benefit of a young, energetic and well-trained workforce.

“It’s a really good relationship,” said Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction.

“We honestly don’t know any better. We just expect it will be cooperative. Talking to other universities and college towns, it’s not nearly as cooperative as it is in Ames.”

Perhaps the biggest tangible connection between Iowa State and Ames is the ISU Research Park, located in the southern part of town. The college benefits by engaging students and faculty with international, renowned businesses, like John Deere, Rockwell Collins, Vermeer, Boehringer Ingelheim and more. The community benefits with new commerce and businesses contributing to the local economy.

“It’s had an enormous impact for Ames because many, not necessarily all, of the really rich, new employment opportunities we continue to attract end up locating there,” said Dan Culhane, president of the Ames Chamber of Commerce. “Whether it’s information technology, animal health, plant science — it runs that gamut. We are presented these opportunities as a market in large part because of the research park but even more significantly because of the presence of Iowa State University.”

The ISU Research Park has seen growth of its own as well.

Just 10 years ago, the park, which was primarily occupied by startup and research companies, was a shell of what it is today. Today, more than 2,000 people are employed by businesses in the research park. That number is projected to nearly double by 2025. Perhaps even more importantly, companies that have expanded beyond the ISU Research Park continue to employ nearly 2,500 Iowans, providing value for the state beyond the city.

“We have seen tremendous growth at the research center,” Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen said. “We see more and more international businesses decide that they want to have a facility at the research park. What that does is provide opportunities for high-paying jobs, but also a variety of jobs.”

The ISU Research Park is a point of focus for the future of Ames and Iowa State. The university is currently searching for a new director after Steve Carter retired at the end of 2018.

“How we continue the growth of the research park is critically important to the university as a whole,” Wintersteen said. “The research park can’t achieve any level of success without the engagement of faculty, staff and students from campus. That’s what businesses who decided to headquarter out there say to us.”

Enrollment at Iowa State has also been a large factor for Ames. Reaching a peak of nearly 37,000 students in 2016, the number has started to taper off a bit, dropping to just less than 35,000 in 2018. But such a large number of people has an effect on every part of town.

Ames has seen a large boom in living developments to accommodate students. That work has come from both local, private developers and national firms that specialize in student housing, Culhane said. Campustown, a downtown-like area just south of Iowa State’s campus, also saw a revitalization as the university’s enrollment grew, adding the sleek Kingland building and a few smaller, local restaurants and coffee shops.

All of this is a benefit to Ames, but it also puts some stress on the city’s infrastructure.

“People are buying groceries, renting apartments, buying gas, and that’s helping Ames,” Espeset said. “I think we’re much better off with the numbers we have today than the numbers we had a decade ago.”

Iowa State also introduces a large number of students into the workforce, whether that be through interns or graduates. And some of these students eventually choose to stay in Ames, benefiting the city for years to come.

“Ninety of our employees are alums of Iowa State,” said Warner of REG. “We have a wonderful internship program that enables us to both give back to the university as well as benefit from these wonderfully bright students.”


In 2000, Ames completed a long-term plan for the economic development of the city. It laid out future intentions to snatch up land east of Interstate 35 stretching all the way to Nevada. The purpose was to create a hub for manufacturing and industry.

While much work was going on behind the scenes, those plans were officially put into action two years ago. The Ames Economic Development Commission and Alliant Energy jointly announced the 730-acre plot of land, called the Prairie View Industrial Center. It has easy access to the interstate and railroad. There is also the connection to Iowa State, which supplies a steady stream of potential employees. The hope is that largescale manufacturers will locate plants there.

“We’ve got this property that lends itself to being a location for someone who needs rail service,” Culhane said. “It’s a large-scale parcel of property, near the interstate, near the railroad, in the shadow of a tier-one research institution. Those don’t always come together like they do here. We think that’s pretty unique.”

There are still things in the works. Ames will deploy sewer and water service in 2019. Culhane said the Ames Economic Development Commission is advertising the space significantly, similar to how the city promotes the ISU Research Park. His sense is it will be about a 20-year build-out on that land, but one company could take a large chunk of the property if it was the right opportunity.

For Ames businesses, the new development is exciting as well.

“It’s a huge win for Central Iowa,” Espeset said. “It’s been about a decade in the making to put the pieces in place, but there aren’t a ton of those sites in Iowa, so that’s unique. It’s meant for large-scale users, so people who will take significant pieces of land and put in major investments to do something there. It’s a big deal.”


Between resources at Iowa State and within the city, Ames’ startup, innovation and investment culture has seen a surge in the past few decades.

In the last eight years alone, Culhane said the city of Ames has seen three local companies go public — Workiva, NewLink Genetics Corp. and Renewable Energy Group Inc. Ames National Corp. is also a publicly traded company in the city.

“That’s telling for a metropolitan area whose size is about 100,000 people,” Culhane said. “It’s really telling that you have that kind of corporate activity in a community this size. I really credit Iowa State University for being an accelerator in that culture, but I also credit our business community and a lot of our business leaders.”

Many of the city’s business leaders came together in the 1980s to create an organization focused on investing in local businesses in Ames. Today, it’s known as Ames Seed Capital LLC, and it has seen a revitalization of sorts in the past decade, Culhane said. The organization continues to raise millions of dollars from private companies to help fund entrepreneurship and expansion in Ames.

Iowa State also boasts a Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, which helps budding entrepreneurs with lessons, space and access to more resources. The center is one of four across the state — the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa and North Iowa Area Community College are the other ones — donated by Iowa businessman John Pappajohn.

In the spring of 2020, Iowa State will open a Student Innovation Center, a 140,000-square-foot facility with an auditorium, classrooms, collaboration spaces, a test kitchen and a cafe. There will also be fabrication areas for students in electronics, woodworking, textiles and more. Students can sell their products at a store that will be installed in the center.

“We’re not only going to have that facility, but we’re also making some changes to our curriculum to allow students to understand and learn what it means to be an innovator,” Wintersteen said. “When we can have students understand what it means to be an innovator and an entrepreneur, whether they start their own business or work for a business, they think differently. And that creates opportunities.”


Ames will have a chance to show off its growth and amenities at the Taking Care of Business Conference, which runs from June 4 to June 6. More than 1,000 Iowa business leaders are expected to attend, and some of the conference venues include Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum, Scheman Building and the Sukup End Zone Club.

Many local business leaders are excited to show off all of the good happening in Ames.

“We are so pleased to have the ABI Conference this year,” Wintersteen said. “We love the opportunity to show off Ames to business owners and employers from across the state, so they can see what we have to offer here and perhaps see the opportunity to have a new collaboration or partnership.

“They can drive around and see the changes to Campustown or the growth of the research park. We know the participants will be impressed with Ames and be impressed with Iowa State University.”

Culhane agrees, and he believes conference attendees will be surprised at how much has changed in Ames.

“The thing I’m most excited about is to bring them all back here to see all of the changes that have occurred if they haven’t been here in a while,” Culhane said. “We’re excited to see partnership and collaboration. That’s what we have here between Ames, Iowa State University and Story County.

“A lot of places can say that, and a lot of places function really well, too. But it’s day-in and day-out how we operate here, and I think that’s a large part of how we’ve had so much success in the past few years.”