Marilee Fowler thinks Interstate 380 is “beautiful.”
But that’s because Fowler runs the Cedar Rapids Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and she sees the bumper-to-bumper grind as a sign of opportunity.
“It shows the strengths of the commerce we have in the corridor, and it plays a vital role in connecting this region,” she says.
Ever since she moved to Iowa from Indiana in April 2010 to become the bureau’s president and chief executive officer, Fowler motors twice daily between her temporary residence in Iowa City past the University of Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Airport, Quaker Oats and all the fertile farmland in between.
“This area is such a wealth of so many things, from education to agriculture to the arts to tourism to technology,” Fowler said. “It’s all so close together, but sometimes we forget to look at each other’s resources.”
That separation between Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and surrounding communities has been a hot topic for politicians and development officials for years. They have cooperated in some ways, like integrating the term “corridor” into the lexicon. But a divisive mindset still exists, as shown by the competition for economic recovery resources after the 2008 flood.
The complexity of achieving collaboration among eastern Iowa communities reflects a Midwestern trait – one that pits Midwestern individualism against a growing recognition that global competition compels regional cooperation, according to a Richard Longworth, an author and scholar on Middle America.
Some area leaders believe that to be competitive and grow economically in the eastern Iowa corridor, citizens, business owners and community leaders need to alter the way they view where – and how – they live.
In May 2010, the Corridor Business Alliance, which comprises 12 development, business and educational institutions, began working on a regional brand that could replace the former “Technology Corridor” moniker.
Primarily funded through members of the alliance, the group hired North Star Destination Strategies of Nashville, Tenn., for approximately $125,000. Although the process will take up to a year to complete, the initial research phase was concluded earlier this month. North Star Destination Strategies presented its findings on December 22.
John Lohman, publisher of the Corridor Business Journal and chair of the Regional Research and Branding Task Force, said these findings will be released to the public within the next few weeks. The research will serve as the foundation for the next steps of the process, which includes creative design and overall strategy development.
“When people think of branding, some people may think this initiative will usurp the identity of different communities and organizations, and that’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said. “People say ‘Iowa City is so different than Cedar Rapids,’ and I say, ‘You’re right.’ When you come to the corridor, you can experience big city and rural Iowa, as well as different political and business climates. There are a lot of different things here for a lot of different tastes, and when you put them together, you have a great region with lots of amenities. If you separate them, you wouldn’t be as successful.”
Globalization and the Midwestern brain drain
One of the biggest challenges the corridor faces is the national opinion of Iowa and the Midwest, said Joe Raso, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group and a member of the branding task force.
“When we conduct research about what outsiders think of our region, we get traditional results about our agriculture and being a cold, fly-over state,” he said. “But when we look at the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area, there’s a lot that doesn’t fit into those perceptions; our region has a rich educational heritage, innovative businesses and a productive work force.”
Raso said finding improved ways to combat misperceptions with a national audience could help attract businesses and talented individuals to relocate to the region.
“The rebranding initiative is about defining and developing who we are,” he said. “If we know who we are, then we can talk to others about those strengths.”
Thomas Gruca, a University of Iowa marketing professor and faculty director of the MBA Marketing Career Academy, says the Alliance’s rebranding effort is a smart way to communicate cultural activities – like the Cedar Rapids Opera Company or hiking in Backbone State Park. That could not only attract tourists, but also combat the ‘rural brain drain’ exodus of young adults from permanent residency in the Midwest, he said in an email.
In Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, argues that the Midwest is fighting a losing battle against globalization. Midwestern cities, counties and states are too small to compete in a global market, and therefore must combine assets with geographic brethren. Examples of this collaboration could include interstate cooperation between big Midwestern research universities, common regional marketing abroad and a high-speed rail network.
Longworth said the biggest challenge in implementing Midwestern regionalism is our own individualistic Midwestern mindset, citing the struggle to reconcile “Friday night rivalries” during the consolidation of two rural schools as an example.
“We’re a region of isolated farms, farm towns, small places, self-reliant and dependent for our very identity on being different and better than the folks next door,” he wrote in an e-mail to IowaWatch. “This never did make much sense, but it was harmless in an era when we really did compete with those folks next door. Now, the real competition is 10,000 miles away.”
Although he projected the Corridor Business Alliance may face similar challenges in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Corridor, he said the rebranding project was a step in the right direction.
Collaboration in the corridor
In 2005, the Johnson County Cultural Alliance and the Cedar Rapids Area Cultural Alliance merged to form the Iowa Cultural Corridor Alliance, one of the first organizations to formally align institutions from both ends of I-380. Its website, www.culturalcorridor.org, provides a calendar of all arts and cultural activities of its 100-plus members, which are located primarily in the Amanas, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City/Coralville, Hiawatha, Marion, Mount Vernon, North Liberty, West Branch and West Liberty.
The biggest challenge the alliance has faced in trying to speak to the corridor as a single entity is “perceived community distance,” Executive Director Abby Ballain said in an e-mail.
“Although a 30-minute commute from one side of a busy city to the other seems short, driving between two communities tends to be perceived as much farther and taking much longer,” she said. “It may take less time for an individual to drive from Cedar Rapids to North Liberty, or Iowa City to West Branch, but the perception is that the amount of effort and time it takes is much greater because he/she is leaving one community and entering another.”
Ballain said she’s pleased with the number of alliance partners who worked to produce events with each other across the corridor. A recent example of such a cooperative pairing was Hancher Auditorium’s collaboration with Orchestra Iowa to present “Professor Kubinek Meets the Symphony” in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Decorah, Mason City and Omaha, Neb.
“These collaborations can be extremely beneficial – sharing time, talent and resources are great ways to minimize costs and to capitalize on strengths,” Ballain said. “They do, however, have their difficulties. It takes hard work and a great deal of communication to ensure that all organizations involved feel equal benefit from it.”
The Corridor Business Alliance was formed in January 2009 to promote similar cooperation among the Corridor’s business organizations.
“A year and a half ago, you had 12 different economic development groups who didn’t know each other – and sometimes didn’t even have a positive perception of each other – and now we’re collaborating,” said Pamela York, executive director of the University of Iowa Research Foundation and a member of the branding task force.
She noted, however, finding a cohesive message may be difficult because of the difference between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids cultures. York believes branding success will entail overcoming the “consensus-driven, risk-averse mindset” and the “polarization between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City” to promote a “boundary-less approach” to corridor life.
Jerry Anthony, an associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, also sees some “naturally hosted linkages” community leaders shouldn’t ignore. In 2007, Anthony presented a conference paper in support of a recommendation by the School of Urban and Regional Planning that the corridor should push for regionalism.
“You can solve Cedar Rapids’ problems without looking at Iowa City’s, but what happens in one place surely affects the other,” he said. “There are certain strengths that each city has that the other doesn’t. For example, Cedar Rapids has an airport, which is crucial for business and economic expansion, and Iowa City has a very advanced work force – which is also a crucial component for business and economic expansion.”
North Star Destination Strategies is slated to present an official branding recommendation in May 2011.
“We have millions of people passing through on I-380, hundreds of thousands visiting Iowa City for sports and the hospitals, and many thousands attending volleyball tournaments and events in Cedar Rapids,” Gruca, the marketing professor, said. “We already have a lot of people looking around for things to do here. The challenge, of course, is that wants and needs are very diverse. Whether a single branding message can communicate the wide variety of options here is a very tall order.”
(Melea Dau is a graduate student at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a contributing writer for IowaWatch.org, a non-profit news service for the Iowa Center Public Affairs Journalism. )