Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday the state’s work to repair an economy limited by the COVID-19 pandemic should address a broad range of topics such as diversity and inclusion, education, broadband and health care.
The 13-member Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, led by Ruan CEO Ben McLean, held its first meeting online. The panel has leaders from the energy, grocery, manufacturing, health care, transportation, agriculture, ethanol, microbrewing, construction and laboratory industries.
Reynolds and McLean said the recovery work is a chance to address long-standing issues, not just the pandemic.
“So the charge, I think, is to take the inertia for change that COVID-19 has created and develop the ideas and plans and metrics that will drive innovation in all corners of Iowa and in all sectors of our economy,” Reynolds told the panel.
The board will examine issues in agriculture, broadband and other connectivity, economic growth, education, government, public health and overall health care, and workforce.
Reynolds said she, like many Iowans, discovered Zoom and some other online tools during the distancing required by the pandemic. She and McLean agreed that the flexibility and innovation businesses showed during the outbreak could make this a good time to tackle many perennial issues.
“Our economic comeback is not really just about yesterday,” Reynolds said. “I think this is an incredible opportunity for us to capitalize on what we like to call the COVID ‘new normal’ to modernize and really restructure our economy, our education and health care systems, our workforce and our quality of life,” Reynolds said.
McLean agreed that helping guide the state through the challenges of the pandemic is a good time to look at the state’s top challenges.
“I believe we can lay the foundation for the next generation of Iowa innovation, ingenuity and quality growth and prosperity,” McLean said.
The state’s chief economist, Robin Anderson, is advising the panel as businesses navigate the pandemic.
Small business income is down 18.7% from the beginning of the year, Anderson said. Signs show growth bottomed out in April, and stimulus payments may have encouraged some spending, she added.
The weakness in manufacturing is “worrisome,” but Iowa has a lower unemployment rate than Illinois even challenges in agriculture, Anderson said.
Advisory board member Mary Andringa, Vermeer chairwoman, said boosting agricultural exports, broadband connections and workforce development are key.
Megan McKay, president of Peace Tree Brewing Co., said business is down 30% to 40% at many bars and restaurants, which are spending more on staff to do extra cleaning.
Many workers and customers are leery about coming back, McKay added.
Other board members offered perspectives.
Adam Wright, president of MidAmerican Energy, said MidAmerican customers’ power demand was down 3% in April, and now is down 1%. Residential power consumption is up 5% as many people work at home and summer sets in, Wright said.
And in a positive sign for the economy, demand from some of the largest users is up 9%, Wright said.
It’s an opportune time to address central issues, Wright said. “Let’s start fresh. Don’t get boxed into what we’ve done in the past,” Wright said.
Nick Bowdesh, president & CEO of Atlantic, Iowa-based Elite Octane, said converting pumps to use 15% ethanol is critical to an industry that has suffered plant closures and sharply lower production during the pandemic as many people traveled less, hurting fuel sales.
Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee president, CEO and chairman, said COVID-19 was a boon to some Hy-Vee departments and devastating to others. Company communications among the chains stores have improved, which is beneficial, he added.
“Supply chain was critical for us,” Edeker said. “There were many issues. It was very challenging, and it still is. We manufactured all of our own hand sanitizer.”
The stores struggled as customers hoarded toilet paper and other products. It could be nine months before soaps and hand sanitizers are fully available, according to national sources, Edeker added.
Strengthening health care and broadband will be important to luring workers to Iowa, Edeker said.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said, “We aren’t just talking about snapping back, we are talking about leaping forward.”
Naig said the disruption to agriculture has been “unprecedented.” All farmers, consumers and business have been affected, he added.
The economic damage could be more than $6.5 billion, Naig said. But meatpacking has returned to 90% capacity, a sign of hope, he added.
The task force, which next meets July 2, plans to submit recommendations to the governor on Oct. 6. The panel has divided into seven work groups and will have a handful of joint meetings through the fall.