'Iowa, come home!' One state fights its brain drain
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?
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."
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."