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The entrepreneurial spirit

BY JUSTIN SUGG | DECEMBER 07, 2009 7:30 AM

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I like to take I-235 instead of the 80-35 bypass when visiting my friends in West Des Moines. The bypass would be quicker, but taking I-235 through Des Moines allows me to view the downtown skyline. There are more impressive skylines in the country, but Des Moines does have some great views at certain vantage points.

That’s more than I can say for Iowa City’s “skyline.” At least Des Moines has interesting buildings like the EMC Insurance building — also called the “Vodka Bottle Building” — which has an indent in the shape of an Absolut bottle. (Absolut Des Moines ad, anyone?)

The disparity between the two towns speaks to something deeper than architectural appreciation. The lack of a skyline reflects Iowa City’s lack of business development. That’s a shame, really, because our little town has so much potential for commercial growth. The Tippie College of Business could provide a catalyst for that growth through its entrepreneurial program.

Business and non-business students alike may receive a Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management through the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center by completing 18 semester hours of designated classes.

But what they don’t have to do is start a business.

The College of Business provides numerous incentives to start businesses, ranging from contests with cash prizes to workshops. UI students may also start a business with the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory. All the other schools I researched with similar programs did not require students to start a business, either.

But that’s what entrepreneurs do — they start businesses. The UI could be a leader in requiring students to start a business before receiving certification. Both the UI and Iowa City could reap substantial benefits from that.

Students starting businesses in Iowa City could greatly diversify and enrich the city’s tax base. Aside from the direct benefits of having more places to draw taxes from, new businesses that aren’t retail oriented could develop a professional class. Such a class — beyond UI personnel — is virtually nonexistent. And having that demographic could have an effect on downtown culture.

Our editorial today proposes numerous changes that, if implemented, could have a tremendous effect on changing downtown culture — which is the key to reducing binge drinking and dangerous behavior. But the downtown still needs a long-term solution to complement our comprehensive proposal.

The economics of binge drinking is a simple, yet powerful, driving force behind the current bar culture. Students as a group make up one of the biggest economic forces in Iowa City, but they have little buying power individually. To fully exploit student buying power, bars must provide a cheap product and make up for it with volume. This has lead to the creation of specials — like $1-you-call-its and 21 pitchers for $21 — that encourage binge behavior.

A new professional class could provide an alternative to bingeing students. Young, working-class adults have, on average, greater individual buying power than college students. As these adults enter downtown while students vacate the area, bars will change their approach to cater to these new tastes. This could lead to deals not focused on binge drinking. This is a long-term solution that, if working in tandem with the editorial’s proposals, could curb binge drinking.

Building a start-up environment may also help the college of business. The Economist recently ranked Tippie the 35th best business college in North America. That’s phenomenal, but it can do better. Colleges ranking higher, such as the University of Washington, benefit from good business environment in Seattle. A good business environment could help Tippie in the same way.

A skyline is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for business development, but it is an indicator. Not all the businesses UI students start will succeed — in fact, most will probably fail. That’s the law of start-ups.

But just having an environment that rigorously encourages business development could attract outside businesses as well. The combination of both would be what Iowa City needs.


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