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Des Moines flexes its economic muscles

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Across the Great Lakes region, many may soon look to a city in Iowa as their economic model. Des Moines was ranked as one of the top “overall performing cities” in the region (and in the country) during the recession, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. In the face of an abundance of dreary economic news, the DI Editorial Board welcomes this development as a sign that the still-fragile economy is looking to Iowa to help steer it in the right direction.

Among the 21 biggest cities in the Great Lakes region — which included hubs in New York, Minnesota, Ohio, and several other states — the report ranked Des Moines at No. 2, trailing only Buffalo, N.Y. Cities were assessed by criteria in four areas: economic output, unemployment rates, levels of employment, and housing prices (with each category being tracked from the start of the recession through the first quarter of 2010). In the end, Des Moines came out ahead of much more populous cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.

A major contributor to the city’s success may have been its comparatively low level of unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationally, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.1 percent but receded to 9.7 percent in May; Iowa has been fortunate that its unemployment rate has remained consistently below the national average, peaking at 6.9 percent in April and dropping to 6.8 percent in May. We students understand this challenging economic environment, having experienced it firsthand. The class of 2010 has faced an abysmal job market, in which for every one job available there are five people unemployed. There’s evidence of recent graduates taking internships, moving back home with parents to save money, or even delaying entry into the job market by applying to graduate programs. That Des Moines is a leading city in the region in economic performance is good news to Iowa’s students and graduates.

Outside of the state, perceptions abound that Iowa is a fairly lackluster place. “No major cities, no major professional sports, but plenty of corn and the presidential caucuses,” the meme goes. But we Iowans appreciate the quality of life, and it helps that is affordable and in reach for most. Des Moines is no Chicago, just as is Iowa City no Austin, yet there are economic advantages in our geography and size.

“Iowa has won good marks for its economic strategy,” said Tim Sheehy, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, to the Milwaukee Journal. “Some of the work that we did early on looked at Des Moines.”

The broader economic picture in the state shows reason for quiet optimism as well, based on numbers released by the Iowa Policy Project’s statement on job rates for the month of May.

“For the first five months of this year, Iowa is gaining 3,500 non-farm jobs per month. That pace is better than the average for any year since 1994,” said project Executive Director David Osterberg. “It is only five months of gains, but I am cautiously optimistic about this year.”

Iowa’s economy is anchored by its heavyweight cities: Des Moines, the fastest growing area in both the state and among mid-sized metropolitan areas in the country; Iowa City, which contains the state’s flagship university, research centers, and hospitals; and Dubuque, a city that is fast becoming a national model for sustainable development. Many challenges remain for the state — the least of which includes an ongoing “brain drain” and decline in the rural population — but the Editorial Board believes that with the positive findings of this report, our state is poised to both retain and entice the minds and talents that continue to sow our “Fields of Opportunities.”

Furthermore, if any good can come from this Great Recession, it may be the changes in perception and attitude regarding Des Moines. We’re proud to see Iowa step up to the economic plate and hit that home run right over the corn field.


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