'Iowa, come home!' One state fights its brain drain

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mishell Meyer grew up in Okoboji, Iowa - a tiny town on the shores of the "Iowa Great Lakes," home to "The Clothes Peddler," "Bud's Pub," and just 820 year-round residents.

Now she's a fast-paced sales consultant who divides her time between New York and Chicago. She lives on the shores of the real Great Lakes, in a city of nearly 3 million, with Prada and Gucci up the street. Ms. Meyer harbors fond memories of Iowa, but she doesn't want to live there.

Nonetheless, tonight she's here with 600 other former Iowans grazing on shrimp and roast-beef sandwiches at a Chicago reception hosted by Iowa's governor, Tom Vilsack. In addition to running the state these days, the governor has become a part-time carnival barker, pitch ing virtues of the Hawkeye State to expatriates like Meyer in hopes that they'll return.

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She's not buying it. "Tell him to get Ann Taylor!" she laughs. "I love the values we got, but it's just too small."

The "brain drain" - a rapid exodus of educated young adults like Meyer - has been a concern for Middle America states for some time now. From 1995 to 2000, nearly 30,000 people between the ages of 25 and 34 left Iowa, according to the US Census. Nebraska, North Dakota, and other nearby states have faced similar losses.

The Chicago reception is the sixth Vilsack has hosted - the second in Chicago - in five years. In addition to touting short commutes, high-quality schools, and burgeoning culture, he directs people to a website (SmartCareerMove.com) that extols Iowa's quality of life and lists jobs.

But it's a tough sell. To date, Vilsack can point to only about 1,000 people who've returned because of the recruitment efforts. In North Dakota, a voter initiative that would have offered young residents an income-tax credit and forgiven portions of their student loans - so long as they stayed - failed last November.

And so Vilsack is broadening his efforts. The receptions and the website will continue, but his current focus is on a more immediate problem: jobs.

"We're realizing that the manufacturing section of our economy is rapidly changing," he says, sitting at a long wooden conference table in his office at the State Capitol in Des Moines. "That makes it hard for the ordinary person to understand why population is important.... It's all about jobs. The number of jobs and the quality of jobs."

Corn, beans, Cubs, skyways

He has a vision of Iowa as a center for a new bioeconomy - using its ubiquitous corn and beans to create everything from T-shirts to fuel. He's trying to retain all the traditional manufacturing jobs as he can.

But most important for the short term, Vilsack says - and the effort he hopes will stem population loss as well - is putting Iowa on the map as a producer of "services," from financial to legal to marketing.

Wells Fargo bank, he notes proudly, just announced that it will build a large new office complex, creating several thousand new jobs around Des Moines. And he frequently touts the unexpected Fast Company designation this month of Des Moines as the "hippest city in the USA."

But even if the jobs are there, will Iowans return? It may be true, as Vilsack likes to say, that Iowans have "rush minutes" as opposed to rush hours. In Des Moines, parking is not only plentiful, it's cheap: One dollar buys you more than three hours at a parking meter, and a downtown garage costs just $7 for 12 hours. And the average cost of a four-bedroom, 2,200 square-foot home is just $175,000.

On the other hand, can the Iowa Cubs really compete with the Chicago Cubs, or the Des Moines Art Center with the Art Institute? Can the clean, empty streets of downtown Des Moines (most of its activity hidden from view in the myriad of skyways that connect buildings) rival the glamour and bustle of Fifth Avenue or the Magnificent Mile?

Behind the 'brain drain'

Vilsack insists, "Everything you can do in a Chicago or New York, you can do in Iowa." Even in today's lean times, he's remained committed to his "Vision Iowa" program, a $2 billion effort to juice up the state's culture and recreation opportunities.

But others aren't sure that's enough. "We've got a lot of medium-sized towns out here, and that's a real challenge to holding onto young people," says Tom Mortenson, publisher of the Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "It's been fun watching Des Moines try to develop a little bit of 'sin' on Court Avenue. They don't know what it is."

Mortenson's research found that between 1989 and 2001 Iowa lost a net total of 70,000 bachelor's degrees - 33 percent of those it produced. (Neighboring Minnesota, on the other hand - a hot destination for many educated young Iowans and Dakotans - gained 159,000 people with degrees in the same period.)

That college graduates leave doesn't bother Vilsack much. He understands the desire to try something new. "What we want to do is create a climate so that when they decide to settle down, decide to have a family, decide to raise children - that's when we want to be able to make a case."

'It's kooky, but it's Iowa'

Back at the Chicago reception, it's a message that's starting to sink in for some former Iowans. Bradley Schaufenbuel, a fresh-faced man from Cedar Rapids, is particularly caught up with the idea of no rush hour. "That resonates," he says, noting that he now commutes two hours a day to his job as an information-systems manager at Arthur Andersen. He likes the schools better, too. "If I had a family, I'd much rather raise them in Iowa." He's standing in line at the Alliance Energy booth, résumés in hand, trying to determine if Vilsack's promise of good jobs is true.

Roy Lidtke, a professor of orthopedics at the Chicago Medical School, is even more convinced he wants to get back some day. He and his wife have been waiting to have kids until they return, he says, but there are no jobs in his field at universities there. So today, he's picked up flyers about entrepreneurial opportunities. "At some point," he says, "it's quality of life versus money."

Mr. Lidtke has a hard time explaining to Chicagoans why he misses his home state, says Lidtke. His roots go back deep enough that an official historic site, the Lidtke Mill in northeastern Iowa, is named for his family. "We love the nostalgia. We love seeing the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. It's kooky, but it's Iowa. That's what we love about it."

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