Thriving on Community: Western Iowa Region Active in Economic Development

Despite limitations from low unemployment and low housing inventory, Western Iowa is in robust growth mode in most sectors.

Economic Growth

“The business environment in Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County has remained robust,” said Paula Hazelwood, CEO of  Advance Southwest Iowa Corporation (SWIC). “Advance typically has approximately 50 economic development projects in our active pipeline, and those numbers have remained consistent throughout 2022 and year-to-date 2023 despite rising interest rates.”

The No. 1 impact factor not only for Council Bluffs but for the entire region is the ability to attract and retain talent, Hazelwood said. 

“The impact is substantial as it relates to production, hours of operation — potential decrease in shifts,” she said. “These factor into bottom line numbers for employers but also impact the overall economy.” 

SWIC worked with the City of Council Bluffs on IceCap, a cold storage facility that opened in March 2023.

“Advance can’t divulge the names of current clients we are working with, but we expect numerous other announcements in 2023 that will commence construction yet this fall or in Q1, 2024,” Hazelwood said. “The primary industry verticals include logistics, technology, service and retail.”

From a commercial standpoint, Council Bluffs is seeing growth primarily in two areas, warehousing and data centers, according to Mayor Matt Walsh.

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“I think the inventory shortages that businesses experienced and the fact that their just-in-time inventory ordering turned out not to be just-in-time, has caused many larger businesses to diversify their warehousing and regions that will allow them to carry their own inventory to make sure that they have the inventory in place in order to do business,” he said. “So we’re seeing both cold storage warehousing and dry storage growth.”

In addition to IceCap, two dry storage warehouses have opened, and there are several on the drawing board.

“They’re large facilities that really don’t have a lot of associated job growth, but that’s not as big of a problem in the current environment where we have unemployment hovering around 2%, and we just don’t have workers to fill large manufacturing,” Walsh said. 

Two unaffiliated data center companies — not associated with Google — are looking for locations for large expansions. 

“Again, those aren’t huge employers, but the jobs pay well, and they’re big electrical users,” Walsh said. “With MidAmerican Energy already in the market and a ready supply of other utilities like water and sewer capacity, we have strong interest in that area.” 

Council Bluffs has a dire need for housing in all areas: owner-occupied, rental, multifamily and single-family residential.

“That area just ramped down after the 2008 housing crunch, and there’s been huge demand and inadequate supply which has driven up the price of housing,” Walsh said. “Then add in the increase in interest rates [and this] has made housing unaffordable for some. But there is still sufficient demand where the price is high, so we’re starting to see some interest in people wanting to address that issue.”

Albert, the World’s Largest Bull in Audubon, Iowa. (photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)
Albert, the World’s Largest Bull in Audubon, Iowa. (photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)

Although the city will see some new streets with its residential projects, most of the commercial projects are serviced by existing roads. A 600,000-square-foot warehousing project is located near Ameristar Casino, and a dry storage facility of similar size is off 16th Avenue and 16th Street. The other warehousing projects, in most cases, are under non-disclosure agreements.

“Amazon is new to the market, and [there are] others that will happen toward the end of the process,” Walsh said. “We have a big manufacturer that is very interested in clean industrial [and will create] several hundred jobs.”

Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa. (photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)
Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa.
(photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)


Although the figures are not in for 2023, tourism in western Iowa is up substantially over last year, according to Shirley Phillips, executive director of Western Iowa Tourism.

“We’re seeing a total influx of visitors, and our travel guides and brochures are just flying out, so we know there are a lot of people out here,” Phillips said.

The organization tracks visitors to western Iowa through its major attractions such as the Danish Windmill at Elk Horn, the Shrine of the Grotto of Redemption at West Bend, and the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball at Sac City.

“We know where our visitors come from,” Phillips said. “We’re seeing people again from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 19 foreign countries so far. We know our campgrounds are full — you can hardly find a reservation for camping. That really spiked during Covid and has continued.”

Rural Iowa depends on lots of vehicle travel, and the counts on the highways are up this year. They’re not quite back to 2019 levels, but they’ve almost recovered, according to Phillips. Since U.S. Route 20 was four-laned across the northern part of the state, traffic has picked up about 35 to 40% every month.

Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa. (photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)
Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa. (photo courtesy of Western Iowa Tourism)

“We built the road for 2,500 vehicles, and we’re now over 8,500,” Phillips said. “People like outdoor recreation. That’s where we see the increase in travel, but I also think the price of hotel rooms is the thing that affects travel the most. People are trying to make up for the past two years.”

The lack of a labor force has put a drag on travel.

“In Iowa, if a restaurant has to close for a couple of days, it’s because they can’t find staff,” Phillips said. “Hotels will rent out only as many rooms as they have people to clean them. Even our industries are looking for workers.”

Nonprofits and Philanthropy

The Community Foundation for Western Iowa (CFWI) serves Pottawattamie County and the nine surrounding counties. The organization partners with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations to lift up the community through grants and other impact opportunities.

“Over the past five years we set our strategic goals,” said President and CEO Donna Dostal. “Two strategic goals that drive everything we do are to create a culture of philanthropy in southwestern and western Iowa and to convene around positive solutions for impactful change.”

One of CFWI’s new initiatives is its Southwest Iowa Mental Health and Substance Abuse Fund, which is designed to help in three key areas. The first is to raise awareness around issues that face individuals living with mental health and drug and alcohol addiction. The second is to remove the stigma around mental health issues and increase awareness around mental well-being. And third is to help pay for training for front-line workers or individuals who work for organizations that provide mental health services. 

“That fund was formed when the nonprofit Mental Health and Substance Abuse Network of Southwest Iowa disbanded,” Dostal said. “They had funds that they owned, and they had to turn those over to another nonprofit. They decided to start this field of interest fund, so we grant from that every year. Usually, we grant between $7,000 and $8,000 to organizations that apply to us.”

Another initiative that has created some impactful change is CFWI’s Women’s Fund of Southwest Iowa.

“We looked to see where we could have the most impact to help raise families out of poverty,” Dostal said. “We know from research that when we invest in women and their families it really does raise all the boats in the communities — helps to put things on a positive trajectory. We settled on four key areas where the women’s fund could have a positive effect. Our goal is ultimately to have $2 million in the fund so we can grant out on the average about $100,000 a year in those four key areas.”

The four key areas are access to affordable quality child care, aging gracefully in place in the community, education for women of all areas, and women’s safety and well-being.

“We’ve been building that fund since 2019,” Dostal said. “To date we’ve raised just over $1.4 million into that fund. Our short-term goal is to have it at $2 million. Our long-term goal is ultimately to have it be about $5 million so we can grant anywhere from $100,000 and $150,000 each year. We are granting out $100,000 this year.”

Each year the organization holds the IMPACT for Women Summit to address these key areas. This year’s event will be held at the Mid-America Center on September 26.

“Another main project we have for this year is SHARE Iowa,” Dostal said. “SHARE Omaha has been around for five years, and last year we entered into a licensing agreement to bring our own dedicated presence of the SHARE platform to Iowa nonprofits. We provide that service to our nonprofit partners in the nine counties we serve in western Iowa at no cost to them.” 

Internally, CFWI has developed a fundraising class and brings in fundraising and donor motivation experts from around the country to share their expertise.

“We just got done with our second cohort going through the class,” Dostal said. “We invite nonprofits to apply to be in [the class] at no cost to them. The cost of the program is underwritten by D.A. Davidson in Omaha. We teach them how to take care of their day-to-day operations and to plan for the future as well through endowment building and plan giving.”

CFWI partners with the Southwest Iowa Foundation, which helps facilitate scholarships to high schools in the surrounding 11 counties.

“Right now we have 78 core scholarship opportunities,” Dostal said. “Last year we gave out over $300,000 worth of scholarships in southwest Iowa.”