Nolte named Corridor's Most Influential for 2015

posted on Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The top of 2015’s Most Influential Person in the Corridor list looks a little different than in years past.

Mark Nolte, president of Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD), was voted the most influential person earlier this year by CBJ readers. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a mainstay on the list, came in second place for a second year in a row, after retired University of Iowa President Sally Mason took the top spot in 2014.

Since being named ICAD’s president in the spring of 2014, Mr. Nolte – who placed 22nd on the list last year – has made a deliberate effort to prepare companies across all sectors for the changes, technological and otherwise, facing the region’s economy.

“My unstated role is to just make sure we are connecting the dots and we’re not caught off-guard with all of the changes,” Mr. Nolte said. “If we aren’t looking ahead and helping make sure our companies are prepared for [the future], then we’re going to struggle.”

He noted that “every industry is going to continue to evolve and be disrupted,” but singled out the educational assessment, finance, and trucking and distribution as major industries in the area that are going through transformations.

“So much of our economy is going to be ripe for disruption,” Mr. Nolte said. “If we’re smart, and help make sure that we’re innovative and help our companies look down the road and be ready, then they will take advantage of that.”

Over the past year and a half, Mr. Nolte has also been working diligently to encourage collaboration across the Corridor. Most recently, those efforts have included the development of a 14,000-square-foot space called ‘MERGE’ on Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall. The concept, set to open next year, will be operated in a partnership with the UI’s Office of Research and Economic Development, and aim to foster public-private collaboration on projects tied to technology, business and education. The Iowa City Council approved a four-year lease for that space last week.

“We’ve been doing this on-and-off-again dance with regionalism for a long time,” Mr. Nolte said. “We are now looking at how we build the trust and relationships across the Corridor so that we can do some things more collaboratively. I think that maybe what was missing in the past was the trust.”

He acknowledged that regionalism can be tricky when it comes to matters of business recruitment, noting that the pressures of “making sure each community is represented and feels like they have a shot” held the philosophy back in the past. But he stressed that it can also help address some of the biggest challenges facing the Corridor, such as attracting skilled workers.

Mr. Nolte argued that workforce issues “cannot be solved at the local level,” but instead need to be addressed at a regional level to develop the infrastructure, amenities and positioning needed to attract talent.

“It used to be that people would move for a job – now people decide where they want to live,” he said. “If our communities don’t offer the right amenities, have the right housing stock or the right schools, then our companies aren’t going to be able to attract the right talent.”

He noted that the once-steady population migration from rural areas to Iowa metros is slowing, as rural populations in the state decline and many young people leave the state once they graduate from college. Offering a quality place to live and a great place to work will both be needed to keep young professionals in Iowa, he said.

“If you only offer one or the other or neither, then people are going to continue to move out,” he said. “We’ve let so many of our young people move away. They graduate from the university or one of our colleges and they feel they have to go to Chicago or some other metro. And that’s a misnomer – they don’t have to.”

Mr. Nolte, 40, grew up in the small town of Sheffield in north central Iowa. His passion for the Hawkeyes brought him to the UI, and his time in Iowa City convinced him to stay.

“I came to school here and fell in love with the place, and other than a few months that I tried to live in Chicago, I’ve been here since 1993,” he said. “I’m very proud to say I’m from here. I’m very passionate about seeing this area grow.”

His wife, Leslie, owns Nolte Academy, a dance and performance studio in Coralville – a “business that she couldn’t have built anywhere else.”

The Noltes also wouldn’t want to raise their five children, ranging in ages from 6 to 16, anywhere else.

“I love the people here,” he said. “And I love my Hawkeyes.”