A Shared Identity: Eastern Iowa Unites to Create Creative Corridor
February 9, 2018 | A shared identity: Eastern Iowa unites to create Creative Corridor
After a devastating flood in 2008 forced communities to look inward to rebuild, business leaders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and surrounding areas banded together to help create a unified brand for the region. Here is their story.
The Creative Corridor means something a little different to the people who live and work there.
Some describe the seven-county region in eastern Iowa, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, as a bed of manufacturing and technological jobs, others say what defines the region is a focus on creativity and entrepreneurship. But that’s why the Creative Corridor has earned the name — it’s a combination of both and a little bit more.
“It’s not really easy [to say what the Creative Corridor means],” said Cindy Dietz, director of business communications for Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins. “I think of it as an expression of the people, the business, the whole aura of the whole Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area.”
The Creative Corridor is made up of Linn, Johnson, Benton, Jones, Iowa, Cedar and Washington counties and has a combined population of more than 450,000 people. It draws workforce from surrounding areas as well, including the Quad Cities and western Illinois, which amounts to a labor footprint of more than 640,000 people.
Within the Corridor comes some diversity of thought as well. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City bring something slightly different to the table when it comes to local economies and values. Cedar Rapids is a hub of manufacturing and brings big brands like General Mills, Rockwell Collins and Alliant Energy. Iowa City has a strong entrepreneurial and creative culture revolving around the University of Iowa. But put the two together, in addition to the surrounding areas, and that creates a large, diverse workforce, as well as an already tested infrastructure.
“All of a sudden, that gets the attention of a lot more companies as they ask why they want to locate in eastern Iowa,” said David Bywater, the fifth-generation owner of Tru Art Color Graphics, which has an office in Iowa City. “They can perceive a diverse labor force with good amenities in the community, and so forth. It’s a big selling point to any business.”
Before the Creative Corridor was the official brand of the region, the area still had those amenities — the manufacturing, educated workforce and creative culture. In fact, there was an informal name, the Technology Corridor.
But it was hard for businesses and communities to market the area when recruiting people and businesses. There just wasn’t a shared identity to display.
It took a flood and a group of local business leaders to change that and help the entire region become recognizable and thrive.
THE CREATION OF THE CORRIDOR
The creation of a regional brand was in discussion long before it became official in 2012. The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City communities knew there was a huge advantage to having a regional identity. But after the devastating 2008 flood sent businesses in the region, particularly in Cedar Rapids, reeling, both communities took an internal approach to rebuilding. The discussions halted.
“Everyone was just trying to keep the lights on and trying to just survive at that time,” said John Lohman, the owner and president of the Corridor Business Journal. “A lot of communities just kind of retrenched after 2008, and they weren’t focused on the region.”
Lohman, Chuck Peters, then the president of the parent company of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Dee Baird, the former CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, sat down and discussed. They shared a similar vision — that the region could be recognizable across the country and the globe.
They set up a meeting with local business leaders in spring 2009 and enlisted the help of a regional branding expert, Michael Langley, who gave the team and the rest of the community ideas to go forward.
While the cleanup from the flood was still happening in 2009, local businesses like Alliant Energy, Kirkwood Community College, the University of Iowa and more helped fund an effort, called the Corridor Business Alliance, to re-envision the region’s brand.
The goal wasn’t to steer the region to a place it wanted to be, but to merely define what it represented. The alliance also didn’t want to take the individuality of the communities away, just find a way to help them by branding the entire area as a desired destination.
Lohman was selected to lead the charge. He and his team hired an outside firm called North Star Destination Strategies out of Nashville, Tenn., to help in the branding effort. The firm did quantitative and qualitative research with more than 1,500 people in eastern Iowa. It found what the local business leaders knew: The mix of local manufacturing, entrepreneurship, an able and innovative workforce, and creativity were the defining traits of this region.
“You added all those things together and Iowa’s Creative Corridor made a lot of sense,” Lohman said. “So that’s ultimately what we decided to hang our hat on.”
The name was made official in 2012 but had been informally kicked around since 2010.
Lohman called the creation of the brand the first phase. The second phase was getting local businesses engaged from a grass-roots level, and the third phase was Kirkwood Community College taking stewardship of the brand.
Now, Lohman said, the area has reached the fourth phase. It started with the creation of the Joint Venture, an organization created jointly by the Iowa City Area Development Group and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, in 2016.
A BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD
Jennifer Daly is out to change perceptions.
Just brought into the fold in the Creative Corridor in July, Daly, the new director of the Cedar Rapids Iowa City Corridor, previously the Joint Venture, is continuing to build the brand for the region.
Daly, who graduated from the University of Iowa and attended high school in the area, has a strong background in building regional economic growth and marketing from the ground up. As the CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council before coming to the Corridor, Daly led a newly restructured, five-county regional development council.
In that role, Daly told her colleagues and friends about growing up in the Corridor, but they didn’t exactly understand the area. They thought of it with the typical Iowan stereotype — the small towns, farming and not a whole lot to do.
In this new role, Daly wants to change that.
One of the first things Daly did when arriving in late July was meet with community and business leaders. Her organization was tasked with three areas of development: continuing to shape and build a regional brand, business attraction and workforce development. She wanted to get input from leaders to see how she could lead this new organization.
Then it was time to get to work on a plan.
She created a group of creative people in the area — graphic designers, storytellers, communicators — to get input about the Creative Corridor brand and a new marketing plan. What she found out made her alter the path of the region, including a new name for the area in the near future.
“There was one clear thing [that was a problem], and that was the brand,” Daly said. “There was some concern that it wasn’t connecting with people.”
Daly and her team have also put together plans to build the area’s workforce and attract businesses.
The workforce strategy was split into two parts: talent pipeline and immediate workforce. Daly already has things in swing with K-12 education to help the talent pipeline, and the University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College have continued to produce quality, well-trained graduates.
The immediate workforce area is still a work in progress. Daly said the team is figuring out how many jobs local companies will add in the near future, then her team will tailor a plan to help service those needs.
As for the business attraction end, Daly has identified six industry clusters that the Corridor suits well. She’s been talking to local CEOs within those clusters and will attend trade shows all over the nation to recruit businesses in those areas to come to the Corridor.
“We’ve got an aggressive sales and marketing plan for this year and also the business intelligence councils to help inform us, which is very, very important,” Daly said.
Local businesses, as always, have continued to step up and be leaders in the region and invest in its future.
Rockwell Collins, which has 30,000 employees worldwide and just under 9,000 in Iowa, was started in Cedar Rapids in 1933. The company has donated about $5 million per year for the last five years to local nonprofits and organizations working toward the betterment of the region and the development of the workforce.
“We want to build Iowa’s workforce, and those are often the children of our employees in most cases, so we want to continue to help Iowa grow,” Dietz said. “So it’s a little bit self-serving in the way that we want to make Iowa the best so we can recruit, retain and attract recruits and employees, but also feel it’s very important to be a good citizen and help support our communities and our state.”
Alliant Energy, a Cedar Rapids-based energy company with a service area that stretches across the Corridor and beyond, has a host of programs geared toward development in the region as well. Just last year, the company created a potential mega site called the Big Cedar Industrial Site. It’s a massive, 1,391-acre site in Cedar Rapids that aims to bring companies into the area. It’s located next to a railway and major roadways.
Through its internship program, Alliant has converted more than 100 full-time employees. And the company sees a lot more growth in the future.
“I think because of our current success in our economic development efforts, those are going to continue in a very robust way,” said Jeanine Penticoff, Alliant Energy’s vice president. “That’s something that we’ll continue to offer as being a big part of this Creative Corridor — not only you think of the office in Cedar Rapids, but we have offices across our service area within that seven-county region, so we have a broad base of employees we have here.”
Van Meter Inc., an electrical and automation supply company based in Cedar Rapids, has built a reputation around the area for its workforce development programs. The employee-owned company has more than 400 workers. The organization earned a spot on Training Magazine’s “Training Top 125” list in 2016 for its exceptional development programs.
Every year, the company’s leaders come together for a two-day conference and identify a core curriculum and expectations for current and future leaders. It helps set the groundwork for leaders to become the best they can be. “We really believe that if you can put your emphasis on developing your leaders, you can help create a great workforce,” said Jenn Bleil, Van Meter Inc.’s learning and development manager. “We spend a lot of time and energy on developing existing and future leaders... There’s an old saying that as the leader goes, the team goes. We know that’s true.”
Van Meter Inc. also has a robust internship program. Along with the interns learning and doing similar jobs as the full-time employees, the program has seen a strong retention rate. In the last three years, Bleil said the company has hired five interns. It’s become part of our succession planning,” Bleil said. “It’s really just building that pipeline.”
That doesn’t even include the programs headed by other big companies in the area, like General Mills, Quaker Oats and many more big brands. There are other exciting developments beyond the private sector as well, like the NewBo City Market and the MERGE Incubator, an area for researchers to start businesses in the private space.
Daly is out to capture all of these exciting developments and turn them into a marketable plan, and she hopes the vision that community leaders had more than a decade ago can come to fruition sooner rather than later.
“I really don’t believe there’s any place better than Iowa City/Cedar Rapids. It is just an incredible place, and I think a lot of times, certainly it’s a place that a lot of people don’t know about,” Daly said. “I want to share it more widely. There’s so many exciting things happening here.”