The fastest growing Iowa communities invest heavily in their outdoors

Talk to any company recruiter, economic developer, or legislator and they're quick to lament Iowa's "brain drain" that results from educated young people leaving the state and never returning.

Yet often in the same breath many of those very same people will say that the key to growing our state is to recruit companies and jobs.

Which is all well and good until you run out of people to fill those empty positions.
And that, I think, is pretty much where we are now here in Iowa. We have jobs to offer. Unemployment is low. But we're struggling to recruit a new generation of workers.

Where am I going with this? Outdoors of course.

I've been lamenting the Iowa legislature's lack of support for the voter-established Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund for a while now. Recently, the political winds have blown toward water quality so that issue has floated to the surface (pun!) in most natural resource policy discussions (for background, I discuss water quality herehere, and here). But as I've said before, the Trust Fund is much more than just water quality.

Funding for natural resources and outdoor recreation is as much an economic development tool as it is a conservation measure. Point in case, let's look at three counties that seem to understand this concept very clearly.

Johnson County, Iowa
In 2008, more than 60 percent of the voters in Johnson County - the fifth largest Iowa county by population and home to Iowa City, Coralville, and the Iowa Hawkeyes - passed a 20 year, $20 million conservation bond referendum to be used for public land acquisition and park and trail development within the county (bond issues like these require at least 60 percent to pass). This measure was the first of its kind in Iowa, but certainly not the last. Nor was it the only significant conservation funding measure passed in that general election. Voters across the nation approved 63 conservation finance ballot measures in November of 2008, creating more than $7.3 billion in new funding for parks and open space in a single election.

Polk County, Iowa
Four years later, Polk County - the county containing Iowa's capital city (Des Moines) and largest population center - gave its voters the opportunity to approve their own conservation bond measure. In the 2012 general election, 72 percent of Polk County's voters approved "Polk County's Water and Land Legacy Bond" (sound familiar?), a 20-year, $50 million conservation bond to fund park and trail improvements, land acquisition, and conservation measures.

Linn County, Iowa
Linn County - the state's second largest county by population - is the most recent county to pass a conservation bond. The Linn County Water and Land Legacy Bond is a $40 million bond for parks and natural resources which was approved by 74 percent of their voters in the 2016 election.

Collectively, these three counties account for more than 770,000 Iowa residents, or 25 percent of the entire state. In other words, one in four Iowans are taxing themselves to pay for local county parks and conservation efforts.

Economic Development Implications

Now let's look at this from an economic development perspective. First, let's see which counties in Iowa are actually growing. It's well known that the Des Moines and Iowa City metros are growing rapidly. But in terms of county growth rates, Johnson is second, Polk is third, and Linn is sixth.

The remainder of the top seven fastest growing counties in Iowa (Dallas, Warren, Story, and Madison, respectively) are immediately adjacent to Polk County. In other words, the seven fastest growing counties in Iowa have either passed their own local conservation bond measure or are adjacent to a county that has.

Now I understand that economic development and workforce recruitment is a big, complex issue. But it seems as though there's a connection between the places that are doing the best at recruiting a new workforce and the amount those communities are investing in their natural resources and outdoor recreation amenities.

Let's look outside Iowa at a bigger picture.

It's well documented that the new generation of workers (Millennials) is very different from previous generations. Most notably, they're very tech-minded, mobile, and have little fidelity to individual employers. They also gravitate to population centers and don't care to own a car, which doesn't bode well for the less-urban communities throughout places like Iowa that were built when everyone preferred to drive everywhere.

Now it's tempting to think that recruiting a younger workforce means recruiting companies like Apple and Google to your community but that's not totally accurate. Sure, anyone you recruit to your community will need a decent job, but gone are the days when people would go to a community just for a job. It's a worker's market and today's employees can pretty much go wherever they want.

So where are they headed?

First and foremost, they're headed to population centers. Cities. But that doesn't mean they're all flocking to the biggest metro areas. They're headed to places with higher population densities, not just high overall populations. Hence the resurgence of downtown and Main Street communities and smaller suburban hubs surrounding major metros. That's why places like Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, make the list of the fastest growing cities in the US.

So it's no wonder the counties surrounding Iowa's metro areas are growing so quickly.

Which brings me to the question of what it is today's younger workforce is looking for in a community.

According to a national study done by the American Planning Association, Millennials and Baby Boomers both see economic development differently today. The report, titled "Economics of Place" found that "Millennials and Baby Boomers want cities to focus less on recruiting new companies and more on investing in new transportation options, walkable communities, and making the area as attractive as possible."

And these folks are obviously willing to invest their own tax dollars accordingly, as evidenced by the bond votes mentioned above.

Funding the Trust = Investing in Communities

This is precisely why the distribution formula for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund includes investments in parks and trails.

The Trust Fund's Formula was designed to address the diverse interests of Iowans.

Big urban centers like Johnson, Polk, and Linn Counties have the ability to pass multimillion dollar bonds. Smaller places like Des Moines County where I live probably can't. But that doesn't mean we have any less need or desire to attract new workers. At the time of this writing, there are over 1,000 jobs available in or near southeast Iowa according to postings on the Iowa Workforce Development site. Talk to any economic development professional, HR director, or Chamber of Commerce leader and they'll tell you that workforce recruitment is a major issue for today's employers.

The funds that could flow from the Trust Fund to communities like mine to grow our trail system, improve and expand our parks, and protect our natural resources wouldn't be any sort of silver bullet - like I said, this is a big, complex issue - but it would certainly give us little guys more of an opportunity to compete for workers.

And so we return once again to the legislature's disinterest in heeding the will of its constituents. We know that seven in ten Iowans support funding the Trust, which is even more than the 63 percent that voted to amend the constitution in 2010 to create it.

We also know that today's workers feel that investment in community is a better economic development strategy than recruiting new companies (like with tax breaks). Yet, here in Iowa our legislators continue to do just the opposite. They refuse to fund the Trust while giving tax breaks to companies like Apple.

Side note here: those $208 million in tax breaks to Apple were to accompany a promise of 50 full time jobs. Doing the math, that's $4.16 million per job. For comparison, outdoor recreation in Iowa generates $8.7 billion in consumer spending, $2.7 billion in wages and salaries, 83,000 direct Iowa jobs and $649 million in state and local revenue tax. Yet Iowa is near last nationally in the amount it spends in this arena.

It should be clear from the research and from the fact that the residents in Iowa's top communities have voted to make their own local investments in natural resources and outdoor recreation that Iowa's lawmakers need to hear our message: Stop giving away the farm and instead start investing in it.


Want to make sure they listen? Contact your legislator and tell them you support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund AND the formula that accompanies it. It only takes a few minutes to punch out an email or leave a phone message at the switchboard. Hold them accountable. Make them listen. Remind them that they work for us.

To learn more about the effort to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, check out the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy website at or follow the coalition on Facebook.