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Despite COVID challenges, Iowa economic development chief remains bullish

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DES MOINES -- Back in December 2019, Debi Durham predicted 2020 would be one of the best years of her decade as chief of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“And we’ve had some stellar years,” Durham told the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.

She based her prediction on trade deals that had been signed, positive signals in the farm sector and a rebound in manufacturing.

“Little did I know, we would deal with a Black Swan event called COVID,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic was a setback, but Durham remains bullish on Iowa’s economy and economic development potential.

There are pockets of concern, she said. The hospitality industry, for example, has been “devastated,” but “our ag economy is strong, our manufacturing is looking to come back extremely strong, ... our unemployment numbers are, in most every county, within reach of where they were before COVID.”

“So I would tell you, we do not have a recession,” Durham said. “Overall, our economy did very, very well.”

That wasn’t the case everywhere, “and I will tell you that our phone is ringing from prospects that want to bring manufacturing projects to Iowa from places like Minnesota, from Illinois.”

Durham credited that to decisions made by the Legislature and her boss, Gov. Kim Reynolds, to keep core industries open through the pandemic.

“Executive decisions, legislative decisions make a huge difference,” she said.

Durham is asking the Legislature to continue to show that leadership by buying into the IEDA’s Manufacturing 4.0 plan that includes making grants to small and medium-sized manufacturers — “not John Deere or Collins Aerospace” — for capital investment in smart manufacturing technologies.

Also critical for economic development as well as community development is building out broadband infrastructure, Durham said.

Although governors have been pushing broadband for years, the pandemic showed “there are certainly places that are being left behind, there are broadband deserts.”

The pandemic also underscored that broadband is not a luxury. Broadband access and speed are lagging, and Iowa must fully invest so Iowans can learn, work and access essential services, such as health care, online, Durham said.

It’s also necessary for Iowa’s high-tech jobs, manufacturing, precision agriculture, education system and local economies.

And Iowa must address its population problem, Durham said. Iowa has more jobs than people to fill them.

National statistics show 10,000 baby boomers leave the workforce each day. In Iowa, she said, it’s about 100 a day.

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