Cedar Rapids, Iowa recently concluded a regional Mayor’s Summits, a program born out of the national Mayor’s Conference of Entrepreneurship. This is the third event in 2016 sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation in the lead up to the national Mayor’s Conference of Entrepreneurship.
When I arrived for the summit, my first Cedar Rapids experience was at Black Sheep, a new restaurant inside a renovated brick building constructed in the late 1890s. In 2008, the building was inundated with more than eight feet of water after historic flooding consumed the Cedar Rapids area. The renovations and new restaurant within this building are a testament to the work being done in Cedar Rapids to build out a vibrant entrepreneurial community in the region.
I found a group of attendees from across the Creative Corridor engaged and willing to discuss the strengths and challenges that exist within their own entrepreneurial ecosystem. The following are two of our conversations’ key takeaways.
Cutting Red Tape
Ron Corbett is Mayor of Cedar Rapids and a strong proponent of entrepreneurship. At the beginning of the Summit, he described his own entrepreneurial venture called Peppy’s Ice Cream Company. It was 1988. He was 27 years old, a recently elected member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and after securing a small bank loan, the co-owner of three converted ice cream trucks. He and his partners had a vision of selling ice cream to the masses of East Central Iowa. One of their first employees? The current Mayor of Marion, Iowa, Nick AbouAssaly, who drove one of the ice cream trucks to cover college expenses.
But Corbett had a problem. Cedar Rapids had an ordinance that banned mobile food trucks. Having invested a significant amount of money and time into their venture, he and his partners were forced to appeal to the Cedar Rapids City Council to get the ordinance changed and quickly. If not, their small ice cream company would be out of business. While the ordinance did eventually get changed, and Corbett was able to start operating his business, complications with city regulations did not stop there.
Peppy’s Ice Cream Company found it could buy its product in bulk, but couldn’t store it because city regulations prohibited parking their storage container for more than three months. Their appeal for variance was denied and they were forced to return to buying their products at retail value.
Mayor Corbett’s story is not unfamiliar to most entrepreneurs. Many of the attendees expressed similar problems when dealing with city ordinances, but there was overall consensus that local officials were willing and capable of engaging the concerns of entrepreneurs in the region and working with them in an expedited manner so that they could open their businesses. Indeed, most of the concern and frustration expressed by the program participants was directed at state and federal regulations.
Building Diversity and Inclusion
Everyone attending the summit understood and accepted they can improve on drawing more diverse people to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Cedar Rapids is heavily overrepresented by white residents. We discussed ongoing obstacles facing the area in regards to attracting diverse talent and how to overcome these challenges.
There was lots of talk about communicating the positive assets of the area to diverse communities currently residing outside the Creative Corridor. Many people said that Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are great places to live and work. People just need to know it. They said there were opportunities available to better market the Creative Corridor as a vibrant place to start a business and call home.
I saw an entrepreneurial community engaged and connected, willing to continue to have these discussions moving forward. And that is the goal of these regional Mayor’s Summits, to start a dialogue that results in positive actionable change within the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
For a more detailed look at data that explains the current state of entrepreneurship in Cedar Rapids, please look at Inara Tareque’s blogpost here. For any inquiries or requests regarding the Mayors Summits, please contact Evan Absher.
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Austin Strassle is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri – Kansas City and current Intern with the Research & Policy Department at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.