Empower Rural Iowa, an initiative under the Iowa Economic Development Authority created to advance growth and investment in rural Iowa, has adopted a new strategic focus centered on finding innovative ideas with potential to scale statewide.

new executive order signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in October updated Empower Rural Iowa’s mission to be a group that “functions as a startup incubator for innovative rural policy.”

Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who co-chairs Empower Rural Iowa, told the Business Record the goal of setting the new mission is to concentrate on investing the initiative’s resources into a smaller number of “big, innovative ideas.”

And a pilot program currently launching in three rural Iowa counties — Cass, Van Buren and Calhoun — captures the spirit of the ideas the group hopes to spearhead, Gregg said. He happened to stumble upon inspiration for the program at a time he least expected: during a 2022 trade mission to Israel.

There, Gregg learned about United Hatzalah, a volunteer-based emergency medical service that aims to reduce response times to medical emergencies. When a call is placed to emergency services, the nearest volunteers are alerted through an app and one of them goes to the scene to help stabilize the patient before the ambulance arrives.

Once back in Iowa, Gregg worked with Empower Rural Iowa members to launch the Iowa United First Aid program, which adapts the United Hatzalah model to help address rural Iowa’s emergency response challenges.

“There are some counties in Iowa where the average ambulance response time is 25 to 30 minutes, which can be a function of a lot of things and it’s despite hard work of people who are volunteering their time and dedicated to serving their communities,” Gregg said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of geography. If there’s a county where the main population center’s in the center of the county and something happens in the far outskirts, it’s just going to be a while for somebody to get there.”

Iowa’s program requires volunteers to be trained in how to do CPR, use an AED, stop bleeds and administer basic first aid. Gregg said this lowers the barrier to entry in a field where the necessary training and continuing education can hinder recruitment of new emergency medical technicians.

Gregg said Empower Rural Iowa will act like a startup incubator in the sense that it plans to test, evaluate and scale ideas like Iowa United First Aid as members see fit, and if it reaches the point that it makes sense for statewide expansion, the project will “exit” and be handed off to another state government agency to oversee and administer.

“When it gets to that point of statewide expansion, it’s probably no longer appropriate for the Empower Rural Iowa initiative to be overseeing that program. … In that case, we would hand it off and then we’ll turn to the next big idea,” he said.

Reacting to new ideas as they come up will also be key to the new model, he said.

“I like conceptualizing it as a startup incubator because I think it conjures up that image of a nimble startup trying something new that others maybe wouldn’t be willing to take on,” he said.

Next steps for the new model

Empower Rural Iowa is also undergoing a few structural changes following the new executive order, Gregg shared.

For its first five years, the initiative had three task forces with separate focuses on growing, investing and connecting in rural Iowa. Each task force had 22 members. Under the new direction, the three task forces are consolidating into one committee of 25 members plus the two co-chairs.

“I think what those two structural changes do for us: No. 1, we found that those issues of connectivity and growth and investment there’s kind of arbitrary lines between those things. … I think this allows us to break down some of those artificial barriers that we were seeing in our discussions,” Gregg said. “The other thing is by bringing it down to 25 members, that’s a more manageable number to have some real discussions and brainstorming and innovation that can happen.”

Gregg will continue to co-chair the initiative alongside Carla Eysink, executive director of the Marion County Development Corp., who moved into the role in December, succeeding Sandy Ehrig. Eysink represents the board of the Iowa Rural Development Council, which Empower Rural Iowa has partnered with since its launch in 2018.

Under the previous structure, Gregg said Empower Rural Iowa propelled several important investments for rural Iowa, including early efforts on grants for broadband connectivity, an issue that then received further funding from federal pandemic relief funds and the governor’s office. The initiative also collaborated with the Workforce Housing Task Force to get $20 million of the $38 million awarded last year in workforce housing tax credits set aside for the 88 least-populous counties in Iowa.

Other grant programs the initiative funded targeted leadership development and quality of life efforts in rural areas.

However, the strategic planning process that Empower Rural Iowa completed last year as it marked five years found it had to spread its resources “pretty thin among all these really good and worthy programs,” leading to the idea to shift the group’s strategic focus, he said.

Empower Rural Iowa has historically received a $700,000 annual appropriation from the Legislature. Gregg said he anticipates the initiative will request that amount going forward and the focus will be on maximizing the impact of the funding.

He said with fewer members, each person will have a bigger role to play in finding and pitching ideas.

“We’ve had one meeting under the new structure. It’s a lot easier to have a conversation with 25 people around the table and encouraging them to speak up and throw their ideas out there. … I think getting that structure more dialed in, we’re able to have those types of conversations, he said.

“The other thing that we expressed to our members is we just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to expect more of you going forward. We want you to come to the table with ideas. We want you to be scouring the news and scouring policy developments in other states to see if there’s anything that we should be borrowing or testing out here.’”

Another piece of the transition will be deciding the future of Empower Rural Iowa’s existing programs. The group will decide whether to continue operating programs and perhaps make adaptations, hand them off to the appropriate state agency or discontinue them.

One idea to go: Employee-owned cooperatives

One of the ideas Empower Rural Iowa could take on next is an effort to help make employee ownership an option for small businesses as they develop transition or succession plans.

Gregg said encouraging employee ownership among Iowa businesses can help prevent the loss of jobs and wealth as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. Two-thirds of Iowa businesses with at least one employee are owned by someone from the baby boomer generation, according to research from the University of Northern Iowa.

The most common path to employee ownership is an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), but Gregg said that is not typically an option for smaller businesses.

“We’re looking at employee-owned cooperatives as a potential way to transition the business to the employees that doesn’t have all the hoops that you have to jump through to qualify as an ESOP, he said.

“I think that’s a really interesting and innovative thing. Again, another vexing challenge, but it has huge strategic impact in our state and in terms of keeping that wealth in Iowa, and particularly in rural Iowa.”

Through a partnership with the Drake Law School and the Drake Legal Clinic, Empower Rural Iowa is having students and faculty help determine the feasibility of employee-owned cooperatives. Gregg said the legal clinic could also make pro bono services available to small businesses going through a transition and considering employee ownership.