Group hopes health care program will draw jobs to north central Iowa

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) &#8212 An economic development group announced Tuesday they would subsidize health care for prospective entrepreneurs in north central Iowa, offering a plan organizers hope will end a decades-long population decline in the region.

The North Central Iowa Alliance, which represents seven northern Iowa counties, launched a three-year pilot program aimed at encouraging business development in the area.

“By creating a pool of funds to defray insurance costs, we’ll be able to spark more business launches,” said Jamie T. Zanios, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at Northern Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. “If we can encourage more businesses to get started, keep them open and help them grow, we’ll improve the economic climate in northern Iowa.”

The initiative, known as the Helping Entrepreneurs Launch program, provides up to $350 a month for up to three years to pay for health expenses of people who start a business in one of the seven counties. Those counties are: Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Mitchell, Winnebago and Worth.

Organizers called the plan the first of its kind in the nation.

The effort comes amid a decades-long population decline in the region. Since 1970, the combined population of the seven counties has dropped by nearly 15,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mason City, the largest city in the region, lost 3.1 percent of its population _ or nearly 1,000 people _ from 2000 to 2003 alone.

“That has profound implications for work force development, economic development and quality of life issues,” said Michael Morrison, president of North Iowa Area Community College. “That’s probably the number one reason associated with trying to do something to grow our regional economy.”

The program is initially funded by a $50,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, as well as $15,000 from the North Central Iowa Alliance raised in matching funds.

The Pappajohn Center in Mason City will screen and qualify potential candidates. To receive funding, participants must live in Iowa and maintain their main headquarters and operations in the seven-county region.

Zanios said that organizers expects to start receiving applications in the next few days.

Shaun Finn, the president of Clear Lake-based computer consulting firm TQ Technologies, said that when he launched his company five years ago, health care costs were a heavy burden.

His decision to go out on his own temporarily left his family without group coverage.

“Health care was a big deal. And for somebody who had never looked into it before, it was an expensive deal,” Finn said. “A program like this that can help fund that, is a huge deal to somebody thinking about starting their own business.”

Supporters said they hope the program will temper concerns over costly health insurance expenses, and encourage startups to view north central Iowa as a destination spot.

“You’ve got a great idea. You’ve got a passion for your product, your service,” Morrison said. “Now all of a sudden you’re going to give up your paycheck, maybe, and you’re going to give up benefits? Well, this program is designed in part to reduce that significant health insurance barrier to help people take that risk.”