Economic recovery panel eyes broadband, worker incentives

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in internet access. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Workforce Development)

The head of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Economic Recovery Advisory Board on Thursday asked members to submit “bold, aspirational ideas” for new initiatives.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses reporters at a news conference at the downtown Des Moines Hilton hotel March 3, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Judging by the panel leaders’ comments, those ideas will include ways to improve broadband service, rural services, and workplace attraction and retention.

Panel chairman Ben McLean, CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, said the public also will be invited to comment on how Iowa can improve in coming years. 

The growing panel, which includes subject matter experts from broad fields and executives who have donated to Reynolds’ campaign, came into Thursday’s meeting after a week of setting their sights on a 90-day sprint to a report. Reynolds formed the panel, asking members to not only figure out a way to restore Iowa’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but find ways to expand it. 

McLean said he liked what he heard as various committees discussed details of their plans to complete the report.

Ben McLean is CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems. (Photo courtesy of Ruan Transportation Management Systems)

“There’s some narrowing to do, and finding —  I don’t think it’s 100 ideas, maybe it’s 10,” McLean said. “But if it’s five or three or, you know, several things that we’ve done that helped transform Iowa into a better state, than I think we will have done great work and we’ll reflect on this time in a decade or so and be very proud of what we’ve done together,” he added.

A.J. Loss, president and CEO of Davenport-based Bush Construction, outlined some of the more specific ideas from his committee on workforce issues. 

“What can we do to make Iowa one of the best places to live, work and raise a family, for those who live here” and for potential residents and workers, Loss asked. 

His committee discussed: 

— Improving worker retention

— Decreasing the state’s unemployment rate

— Adding to Future Ready Iowa to help train workers

— Finding new child care options

— Expanding Home Base Iowa to all 99 counties

— Standardizing community college courses

— Offering Last Dollar Scholarships for non-accredited programs

— Establishing tuition reimbursements to encourage former Iowans to return to the state

— Investing in downtowns

Many other board members stressed the need to improve broadband service, especially in rural areas. 

Kelly Garcia is the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) and interim director of the Department of Public Health. (Photo via DHS)

Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services and interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said she is looking for ways for the two departments to more fully share data. She said better connectivity will be important to telehealth, which several board members mentioned will be a key to helping rural Iowans. 

Dan Houston, chairman, president and CEO of Principal Financial Group, said part of the broadband solution will be working on public and private partnerships. “But there is no silver bullet here,” Houston said. “There’s no home run. There is going to be a constant chipping away at this.” 

Assisting in the panel’s work are state department heads, including Debi Durham, who leads both the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, and Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education. 

The advisory board next meets July 24. Final recommendations are expected to be submitted to the governor Oct. 6.