Governor Tom Vilsack held a telephone news conference this (Tuesday) morning to tout the state’s economic strengths while the Iowa Farm Bureau launched a campaign to combat what it sees as Iowa’s economic weaknesses. David Lyons, the Iowa Farm Bureau’s chief business development officer, says Iowa ranks at the bottom of the states when it comes to business development.
“Statewide we’re doing a poor job on new business start-ups,” Lyons says. He says federal statistics show that in 2005, Iowa ranked 50th among the 50 states in new business start-ups. And only two Iowa companies were on Fortune magazine’s latest ranking of the 500 fastest-growing companies in America. Lyons says that’s why the Farm Bureau is setting aside five-million dollars and partnering with the Entrepreneurial Development Center in Cedar Rapids on a project solely focused on small businesses in rural Iowa.
Potential small business owners in “non-metro areas” of the state will be able to get advice as well as money to start their companies. “We believe with the human talent, the entrepreneurial spirit that’s the history of Iowa, that with the right structural supports, the right mentoring capacity, assistance in connecting the dots of available assistance…and then the addition of solid, sustainable seed and venture capital that the entrepreneur can count on will give us a much higher lift in new business starts in Iowa,” Lyons says.
The Farm Bureau’s the first investor in the newly-created “Rural Vitality Investment Fund.” “From the research that we’re seeing the biggest impediment to starting new businesses in the rural areas is finding the right types of assistance at the right times in that business’ life-cycle,” Lyons says.
The Farm Bureau contends its new program will help provide the kind of advice and start-up money to address that problem. “It is focused on companies that are from the non-metro areas, from communities of 30,000 people or less. It is focused on companies that are wealth and job creators,” Lyons says.
Meanwhile, Democrat Governor Vilsack cites different statistics to make his case that the state’s economy is among the nation’s strongest. “There’s been a lot of work done to get us to this point,” Vilsack says. “It was not easy.” Vilsack contends a combination of state-level tax cuts in each of the last eight years and his Iowa Values Fund which handed out huge grants to new or expanding businesses have worked magic in the Iowa economy.
“We have a record number of employed Iowans today. At no time in our history have we ever had this many people working in non-farm jobs so I’m not sure where those folks are getting those numbers or statistics,” Vilsack says. Vilsack says the state economy has “clawed” itself back into a better position than when he took office — something the Farm Bureau and even the liberal-leaning Iowa Policy Project dispute.
Vilsack says the “facts” don’t support that. “Fact: we have a record number of employed Iowans. Fact: in May of 2006 USA Today ran a report based on Census Bureau information that indicated that over the last five years Iowa’s per capita income growth rated 11th-fastest-growing in the country,” Vilsack says.
The governor also says the latest Census Bureau information indicates Iowans median income grew by more than seven percent from 2004 to 2005. “There are people who want to be pessimistic about all of this, but the reality is that we ought to be celebrating this good news,” Vilsack says. “If we want to convince our young people to continue to want to stay in Iowa and live and build a future in Iowa, we need to be optimistic and bullish about Iowa.”
Lyons, the Farm Bureau’s chief business development officer, used to work for Vilsack. Former Governor Terry Branstad named Lyons director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development in 1994 and Vilsack kept Lyons on when he became governor in 1999. Lyons left shortly afterwards, in 2000, to take the job with the Farm Bureau.