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Re-branding the Corridor for a More Regional Edge

When John Miller describes where he works to someone unfamiliar with Iowa, he starts by telling them he’s four hours west of Chicago.

He then asks if they’re familiar with Interstate 80 and the Mississippi River.

Miller is co-owner of Cedar Rapids-based Hybrid Transit Systems Inc., a freight broker that does business nationally and internationally.

As businesses that compete globally know, you need to be on the map. And that’s just not the case for much of the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor, according to area business leaders.

But an effort is under way to change that, and the first push came earlier this year with the re-branding of “Iowa’s Technology Corridor” as “Iowa’s Creative Corridor.”

Creative Corridor was selected to more accurately convey the region’s blend of art, science, and technology, said members of the Corridor Business Alliance task force that led the initiative.

The goal is to have the area seen as one region, rather than separate communities.

Think Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Austin, Texas. That may seem a lofty target, but the people behind the Creative Corridor effort have set their sights that high.

Businesses would benefit, they say, if the area can get there.

If a company is seeking to relocate, already being known through the Iowa’s Creative Corridor brand could help the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area at least be considered, said Nancy Quellhorst, president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

For one, it would create a vibe, an emotional connection, she said. Say “Silicon Valley” and technology comes to mind.

Also, it would help the area be viewed as a region. Site selectors may be looking for an area with 350,000 people, for example, and the initial work is often done by a computer program, Quellhorst said.

The census puts Cedar Rapids’ population at 126,000, Iowa City’s at 68,000. The metropolitan statistical area of each has an estimated 260,000 and 155,000 people, respectively, for a combined 415,000.

“The advantage that we have by being identified as a region, ergo having that higher population number, could make a huge difference,” Quellhorst said.

Selling itself

It also could attract talented people to the Corridor.

Phil Larson said he recruits people nationally as director of the Iowa City office of Shive-Hattery, an architecture and engineering firm headquartered in Cedar Rapids and with offices elsewhere in Iowa and the Midwest.

People from outside the state often view Eastern Iowa as being in the middle of nowhere and boring, he noted. Once people accept a job they often are happy and stay, he said—but it’s unknown how many people don’t even apply.

Shive-Hattery is supportive of the Iowa’s Creative Corridor brand, and Larson said that instead of his having to sell the area to people, it’d be nice if it sold itself.

“We have a great story,” he said. “We just need to get it out.”

Hybrid Transit Systems’ Miller believes the re-branding is a good idea and could be good for business.

But he added that the concept of a place such as Silicon Valley emerged because of what happened there, not because of a name.

Iowa’s Creative Corridor backers recognize it will take a long time, probably decades, for the name to stick and the brand to have resonance, said John Lohman, publisher of the Corridor Business Journal and one of the primary members of the re-branding task force.

“If we work hard as a region, then hopefully people across the country will know us as the Creative Corridor, and not just Iowa’s Creative Corridor,” he said.

The adjective “creative” is intended to refer to not just the obvious “creative” types such as painters, writers, and dancers, but also inventors, engineers, farmers, and the many other professionals in the Corridor who know their craft, task force members have said.

“Considered one of the nation’s leading economic development regions, ICC emphasizes creative innovation and support that allows individuals, businesses, and organizations to transform their future, their company, their industry, or even the world,” according to the Creative Corridor’s website.

In the corporate world, branding forces companies to think about what they want to be and what they want to say, said John Murry, a brand expert at the University of Iowa business college.

“Branding is not magic....What we’re trying to do is figure out what it is we need to put in the customer’s head that will give us the best chance to succeed,” he said.

The next step for the Creative Corridor should start by the end of this month, with a task force forming to execute the effort’s strategic plan, Lohman said. Chuck Peters, president and CEO of SourceMedia Group, the parent company of The Gazette, is one of the chairs of that task force.

The work so far has been done by volunteers, but Lohman said a part-time employee may be hired, probably by one of the Corridor Business Alliance groups, to help implement the strategic plan.

The alliance, which spearheaded the re-branding effort, is an affiliation of 13 area economic development organizations and companies that promotes a regional approach to economic development.

Thinking regionally

A lot of work will need to be done inside the Corridor to get people here to use the term, Lohman said. The Creative Corridor has been defined geographically as the Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, and Washington counties.

That could be key, as Jerry Anthony, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa, said economists believe competition in the coming decades will occur between regions, not countries.

He said this area would be well served by acting regionally. Imagine selling Iowa City’s intellectual capital combined with Cedar Rapids’s manufacturing base and airport, he said.

“If you market this entire area—Cedar Rapids and Iowa City as a region—then it has almost everything you would desire to maximize economic benefits,” Anthony said.

There’s often a lot of talk about regionalism, particularly among local governments. But then parochialism takes hold when it comes time to act.

Anthony said that’s because cooperating regionally may cause short-term pain locally.

Dennis Tallman said his printing and marketing company, AlphaGraphics in North Liberty, provides mostly business-to-business services in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. So as other businesses go, so goes AlphaGraphics, and he thinks the Iowa’s Creative Corridor initiative will help.

“When the regional economy does well, all businesses do better,” he said. “So that’s all we’re trying to do is make sure that we are a strong regional economy.”

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