Why Everyone Is Moving (Back) to Iowa — And You Might Want to Join Them
More and more Iowans who left their home state are finding their way back, and their reasons might convince you to join them.
There’s a delightfully irreverent gift shop based in Des Moines called Raygun where you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like, “Des Moines: French for ‘The Moines’” and “Iowa: 75% Vowels. 100% Awesome.”
(I once asked a friend why Iowans are so funny. “We have to be,” he said. “We live in Iowa.”)
On the postcard rack at Raygun, among cheeky sayings like, “Wave the next time you fly over!” and, “For some reason you have to come here to be president,” you’ll find one that features a picture of a beaming mother holding a phone. The text reads, in block letters:
“Iowa: Your mom says all your friends are moving back.”
And in this case, it turns out your mom is absolutely right.
Iowa’s population is growing at a rate that’s outpacing the Midwest as a whole (with some areas, like Des Moines and Iowa City, experiencing astonishing growth rates above 12 percent between 2010 and 2017), and many of the state’s “new” residents aren’t so new. They’re millennials like Liz Keehner, 27, who grew up in the small town of Sheldon, Iowa, and left for Austin after college, landing a job at a startup venture capital company.
“I loved growing up in Iowa, but I knew I wanted to experience opportunities outside of what I had always known, and somewhere warmer in the winter sounded nice, too,” says Keehner. While she and her husband enjoyed life in Austin, they knew they’d end up back in her home state. “It was just a matter of when.”
They moved back last year.
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Why? The same reason given by every single person I interviewed for this article: family. Whether native Iowans wanted to raise their families in Iowa or just be closer to their parents, siblings and cousins, millennials who grew up in Iowa often feel a strong pull to return.
“There are certain traditions and values here that are different than both coasts,” says Tiffany Conrad, 36, a sales manager at Catch Des Moines who moved back to Iowa seven years ago after stints in Chicago and Santa Monica. “I loved California, but I didn’t want to have a family out there. I wanted my parents close by, and I wanted my kids to have the same memories I have."
Keehner now works as a program manager for VentureNet Iowa in Des Moines, administering the state’s Innovation Funding programs. In her downtime, she’s living the family-centric life she envisioned, “watching my nephew grow up, attending my sister’s basketball games, and being able to jump in a car for a quick weekend trip versus getting on a plane. We love knowing we will get to raise our family the same way we grew up.”
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Real estate developer and entrepreneur Nate Kaeding, 36, feels the same way. A University of Iowa graduate who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2004 and played there for nine seasons, Kaeding moved back to Iowa City five years ago to get his MBA and put down roots. “I put a lot of value on community and being close to family,” he says. “The school system here is amazing. It’s a clean, healthy, safe, entertaining place to raise kids.”
The traditional American narrative says you need to strike out to a big city to make your mark, but Kaeding’s experience highlights an alternative that more and more young people are embracing: creating a big life in a small city. “Being from here, I wanted to come back and have an opportunity to influence the community in some shape or form,” he says. “When you’re in a large metropolitan area it’s harder to move the needle one way or another. I wanted to come back and have an impact.”
Tim Carty, director of talent attraction for ICR Iowa, can vouch for that. “The opportunities in Iowa City-Cedar Rapids are seemingly endless. The region is growing quickly, and the amenities and innovation are the only thing outpacing the population.”
Carty says he’s seen an interesting common thread among native Iowans who are moving back to the area: the desire to be spontaneous in a way big, crowded cities don’t allow.
“We enjoy a pace of life that’s just easier. We can afford to enjoy the amenities our region has to offer, which are plentiful, and our commutes are short. You can come home from work, chat with your family, head downtown for an amazing locally-sourced dinner, catch a show or a ball game, and be back home without having to ride a train, bus or sit screaming in traffic.”
Kaeding agrees: “Cool restaurants and boutique movie theaters and yoga studios — we have all those things, but you don’t have to spend 40 minutes stuck on an eight-lane freeway to get to them.”
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Two more words that tend to come up a lot when you talk to Iowa’s returning residents: “Iowa nice.” This isn’t just a stereotype or an empty catchphrase; it’s a very real culture of welcoming and fostering community that goes far beyond basic politeness.
According to Mandy McWherter, director of membership for the Technology Association of Iowa, “Iowa nice” has made the state’s tech and startup scene much more inclusive and accessible than the competitive, cut-throat culture of Silicon Valley.
“Manifestations of ‘Iowa nice’ come in the way of accessibility to leadership and community building initiatives throughout the state,” she says. “Many executive leaders, even for Fortune 500 companies like Principal and Bankers Trust, are willing to grab coffee and help young people get connected. It’s no secret that Iowans are willing to help people succeed.”
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When Keehner moved to Des Moines from Austin, she saw the difference in action. “You can’t find ‘Iowa nice’ anywhere else and it’s something that gives Iowa an advantage. I was able to get introduced to people in the startup community extremely quickly because of everyone’s willingness to meet with me and make other intros.”
This warm, personal approach to networking has proven extremely successful, making Iowa a veritable tech destination, packed with high-quality jobs and excited to welcome new (or returning residents) to fill them.
Combine those great jobs with Iowa's low cost of living, and you've got something special. "My girlfriend recently moved to Iowa from Manhattan," says Iowa State Senator Zach Wahls. "She cut her rent by two-thirds while almost tripling her square footage. And we live in a more expensive part of town!" Wahls himself moved back to Iowa in 2017 after a couple years on the East Coast. "I really enjoyed my time outside of Iowa, but I always knew I wanted to come home. At the end of the day, I think it's all about the kindness, patience and generosity you can find here. There's no place quite like Iowa."
Iowa has always been a great place to raise a family. But in recent years, it’s also become a place to build a career and truly enjoy all the best parts of life, from amazing food to unforgettable sports moments. Clearly, millennials are taking notice.
“I think the most important thing we realize here is that we don’t have everything, but what we have is just really, really fantastic,” says Carty. “You will never, ever regret moving here.”
Or, it turns out, moving back.