Brent Willett recently became executive director of the Cultivation Corridor initiative. The initiative, a product of the Capital Crossroads Capital Corridor committee, aims to brand Central Iowa as an agriculture and biosciences hub. Willett will focus on assembling a volunteer board of leaders and working closely with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa State University and other stakeholders in the region. Willett previously served as the president and CEO of the North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corp., the executive director of the Fairfield Economic Development Association and a senior project manager for the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

Tell me about this position.
It’s a new position. The Capital Corridor (which was recently unveiled as the Cultivation Corridor) has been a component of Capital Crossroads since its inception in 2011. So, what the committee and co-chairs (Steve) Zumbach and (Steven) Leath determined early on was that ultimately the work plan was going to necessitate staff leadership. The position is new, and I’m certainly excited about being able to work off what is a very well-established platform in terms of mission, what we want to accomplish, what we think we can accomplish ... what we want to focus on in ag business and bioscience development, how we want to do it, and the parties we want to have involved both from institutional partners in those co-chairs to all of our partners in economic development practitioners in Central Iowa. 

How much area does this Cultivation Corridor initiative encompass?
The Cultivation Corridor  encompasses the eight counties that the Partnership works with. What’s unique or enhancing of that is the formal incorporation of the Ames community, and specifically Iowa State University. There are about 11 innovation corridors or concentrations in the United States. The best examples are Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. We feel an immediate sense that Central Iowa can fit into and play in the space of agriculture and bioscience cluster development, which is not happening anywhere else in the country in a formalized way. So while our immediate geographic approach addresses Central Iowa, there’s no question that ultimately what we expect, if we’re successful, is that the rest of the state will benefit and ultimately participate in what we’re doing.

What are your goals?
We are going to get to formalize our board of directors. Then we’re going to get to work on the formal plan for what we want to accomplish in year one, two or three. A tremendous amount of work has been done in terms of the brand, in terms of our approach and in terms of how we’re going to deploy that message.  I’m looking forward to getting to know my board of directors, getting to know my new partners in the Partnership, and Iowa State University, and the Ames Chamber and Economic Development Commission. So there’s always that component of meeting as many people as you can. 

What more do people need to know about the new branding initiative?
You only get one chance to make a first impression. That applies in economic development as well. You ask anybody, are we a leader in ag and bioscience development in the country? Of course we are. But we think we have the opportunity to formalize that and to create the critical mass that a true innovation corridor consists of. We don’t have that here. We have many of the pieces in place, but there’s a lot of work to do. 

Why economic development?
I feel very fortunate to have spent my entire career in the economic development field. It’s truly a passion of mine, and is something that I jumped at this opportunity to work in a very regional – and in ways statewide – function to move the sector forward. I’ve been an Iowa guy my whole life. I always will be. I love this state, and I count myself fortunate to be in a profession where, if I’m successful and the folks I work with are successful, we’re improving conditions for the people in our communities. 

What do you do for fun?
I’m a runner. I do that as a hobby and also sort of as a de-stressor thing. I’m a huge Chicago Cubs fan. I’m a history buff, so I’m into reading about history and specifically sort of mid-20th-century history interests me. And spending time with family and friends.