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Artistic Iowa: The Rise of the Creative Class, a Decade Later

Tony Webster

In his Condition of the State, then-Governor Tom Vilsack declared that 2004 would be "The Year of the Arts, Culture and Recreation in Iowa." 

He continued, "Studies show that creativity spurs economic growth; breakthroughs in understanding are essential to the task of building a world of opportunity. Creative thinking, the hallmark of Iowa's success, will lead us to a more dynamic future."

To that end, he launched the Great Places Initiative, an effort to make Iowa the cultural capital of the Midwest, and did a series of keynote addresses with Rick Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class. In the book, Florida highlights how spurring creativity and the 'knowledge-based economy' catalyzes positive change in cities. Steven Pedigo, director of the Creative Class Group, says while the creative economy used to be restricted in large part to big cities, the fact that more people are now demanding both an artistic place to work and a good quality of place, there's more opportunities for all sizes of economy.

"Many of our smaller cities across the country are starting to play a role here. This is why I think you are starting to see a boom in places like Des Moines, perhaps like Austin, Nashville--mid-tier cities that have developed a quote-unquote creative ecosystem that becomes very appealing to the creative class."

So how is Iowa doing, more than a decade after that address? One of the easiest places to look for progress in the creative economy is the state's capital, where festivals, art and music venues, and a glut of creative entrepreneurs have sprung up and thrived in the new millennium. Amedeo Rossi, manager of the 80/35 music festival and owner of the Vaudeville Mews, says in the 90s and early 00s, people in a variety of different creative areas started figuring out the viability of making the arts a business in Des Moines

"One of the biggest challenges was having people believe that the quality was here to create good things and to believe in the art, the music, the other creative capacities could be as good as in other areas. It's one of self-belief really, that something can happen, and the quality and the art is there and the individuals to contribute."

It's easy to write those gains off as obtainable only by the the economic and political center of the state. But Zach Mannheimer, founder of the Des Moines Social Club, is trying to bottle that lightning for rural Iowa as well. He is the vice president of creative placemaking for Iowa Business Growth, and he's going to rural communities in Iowa, attempting to harness their natural talents to create the same type of creative economic boom Des Moines experienced.

"It starts with the people there. I wouldn't even say we're transferring any magic; we're inspiring it. There are many great ideas and great leaders in all these communities, but they've been challenged by hard economic times, and brain drain [...]. That has been happening for fifty years in these communities."

Mannheimer believes that while population shifts have been rural to urban in the past half century, that trend will reverse in the next few decades. He wants small Iowa communities to be ready. He uses Algona as an example.

"It's about two and a half hours from everything. Therefore, downtown, on state street there, every single storefront is full and most of them are thriving and doing very well. They have some innovative restaurants up there."

Despite that and a few strong businesses with jobs to offer, Mannheimer says they still struggle to attract new people to the area.

"They're lacking some of the amenities that young people want. It's not rocket science to figure out what these things are. So what I do is I do what I call visioning sessions with the community. I meet with as many community members as I can and we straight up ask them, 'What is needed here and what do you want here?'

From there they crunch the numbers, figure out what's realistic, and put plans into place with city leaders at the head. Mannheimer is working with Walnut, Iowa as well.

On this Iowa Week edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Pedigo, Rossi, and Mannheimer about the intersection of creativity and the economy.

This program originally aired as part of IPR's 2016 Iowa Weekduring the month of September.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River