by Bekah Porter

LINN COUNTY – One issue surfaced again and again during Priority One’s annual meeting.

From the keynote speaker to the organization’s new president to the incoming chair of the board, the people at the podium highlighted one word – regionalism.

In fact, that one issue can be credited for sustaining some 2,000-plus area jobs, said Jeff Noel, corporate vice president of communications and public affairs for Whirlpool Corporation.

During his key note speech, Mr. Noel said that if it were not for Priority One staffers assuring company officials that the area was operating collaboratively, he is not sure the appliance giant would have invested more than $20 million into the Amana facility this past year.

“When we started working with Priority One, they did a great job of convincing us that this is a regional community,” he said. “And every step along the way of working with Priority One, they’ve done a great job of bringing in players from around the region and around the state. We (went ahead) with the investment because Priority One and all of the parties Priority One brought together convinced us there are no barriers here. I think Priority One has been acting (regionally) for a long time.”

And that, he said, is exactly the mindset his global company is looking for as they work to compete in a worldwide market that is growing increasingly competitive.

“If you’re not moving toward regionalism, and if you’re not thinking regionally — which is what enables you to enact globally — then you’re not even in the starting gate,” said the Kentucky resident who describes himself as a horse racing fan. “Going regional and thinking regionally doesn’t guarantee success, but it allows you to be in the race. If you’re not thinking regionally, you’re not even going to be in that race.”

Mr. Noel said that when Whirlpool was debating to what extent it wanted to invest in its now-updated facility, it turned to Priority One to gauge the area’s willingness to work collaboratively and to see how the region’s brand could bolster his company’s profits.

“We have 42 manufacturing facilities across the globe, and we’re (always facing increased global competition), so if we go into an area that is operating locally without thinking globally, then that impedes our willingness to make an investment. We don’t invest in communities that don’t have the ability to think globally and operate in a way in which boundaries are removed,” he said. “(When an area) has a brand in which it is presenting itself as a regional body, that tells us that (the region) wants to help us succeed. Regionalism as part of a brand goes a long way toward inviting us to a community. It tells us that the community has looked to tomorrow and realized that today we have to work differently than we did yesterday.”

And that, he said to the crowd of about 450, is something to consider for the future.

“You can’t be about a township, village or city,” Mr. Noel said. “It has to be about the region.”

This regional approach paid off for the Corridor, he said during an interview with the Corridor Business Journal. That was in part because of Priority One’s willingness to work with neighboring communities, the appliance company poured more than $20 million into the Amana facility and added a new service line which created about 60 jobs.

And because of this willingness to collaborate, said Division Vice President Dan Smith, the area was able to continue boasting that is has the company that invented the microwave oven and the double door refrigerator.

“Dan basically operates a city of 2,300 employees (in Amana),” Mr. Noel said. “But it is a city of a greater community that includes the Amana Colonies, Iowa County, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City. There may be governmental boundaries, but it is one group of people striving toward a common goal. There can be no boundaries that inhibit opportunity, and if there are, those have to be broken down to make sure this region can grow and survive.”

It’s this approach that must dictate Priority One’s future, said incoming Priority One Board of Directors chairman Barry Boyer, who is replacing Kyle Skogman.

“Our future depends on our ability to use our collective strengths… to compete globally,” he said. “It’s not about Waterloo, Dubuque or Des Moines anymore. It’s about Mumbai and other such places across the world.”

And while Mumbai or Seoul or Shanghai might have opportunities for businesses, nobody in the room should forget that Cedar Rapids has just as much potential, said new president and CEO Dr. Dee Baird, who accepted the position when Mark Seckman left his position about a month ago.

“The grass is not greener anywhere else,” she said.

Ms. Baird cited a recent economic study that touted the Corridor’s potential for collaboration.

“This area boasts the only true regional economy in the state,” she said.

For this region, she said that she wanted to incorporate a regional vision into the organization’s strategic planning session later this year. Additionally, she said, she wants regionalism to be a focus for the organization as it moves forward in trying to attract the attention of the 22 area companies who are planning to make expansion decisions in the next year.

If Priority One does just that, Mr. Noel said, then the region can start the race he thinks the area can win.

“With regionalism, you’re in the race worth running,” he said.

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