Fred Hubbell
Fred Hubbell

October 9, 2017

Fred Hubbell, a fifth-generation Iowan with familial ties to some of the state’s foundational businesses, says the resurgence of downtown Des Moines, an urban center many feared to be on death’s doorstep a generation ago, can be repeated in rural reaches.

In fact, the Democratic candidate for governor says the state’s future depends on widening growth beyond its largest cities and the sprawl of suburban life.

“Everybody was worried about the suburbs having all the good things going in Des Moines and people were worried about having a rotten core in the downtown area,” Hubbell said, acknowledging that he was referring to the 1980s and 1990s.

“We have the same issue with the state now,” Hubbell said. “It is just kind of the reverse of that.”

In a 30-minute interview with this newspaper — as part of a schedule that involved more than eight hours of events, tours and one-on-one meetings in Carroll County last week — Hubbell, 66, said his vast business experience led him to many corners of Iowa. He thinks he’s ideally positioned, in terms of style and experience and vision, to bridge the urban-rural divide in the state, and make 99-county economic development the unquestioned focal point of the next occupants of Terrace Hill — the governor’s mansion his family donated to the state.

“When I get chance to talk with people I relate to people the same everywhere,” Hubbell said. “I think I can relate to somebody in Manning or somebody in Carroll or somebody in Des Moines equally well because I respect people. I don’t pre-judge people where they are coming from, and I’m interested in people.”

As a former chairman of Younkers, Hubbell worked with that department store across Iowa. He also served as chairman of the Iowa Power Fund, which reviewed 300 projects tied to renewable energy and invested nearly $100 million in 49 of them.

“I think I can understand and relate to what drives the economy and growth in rural Iowa just as well as I can in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and I am as anxious to grow it here as I am there,” Hubbell said in Carroll. “As a matter of fact, in many cases, I think we have more of an obligation to drive the growth in rural Iowa because it’s been ignored for too long.”

Des Moines reported record housing growth in 2016. And the suburbs around the capital city are snarling traffic as they grow at a breakneck place. Corridors of economic progress are driving down unemployment rates and boosting futures in major metros.

The state must do more in more places, though — and with urgency, Hubbell said.

“If we don’t make sure that those strong areas are supported by good, strong communities also, then ultimately. the strength and ability to grow in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Ames and Iowa City is going to decline. Iowa can’t sustain itself on the strength of two cities better than Des Moines could sustain itself just having strong suburbs,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell said the state should provide incentives for students who graduate from medical school at the University of Iowa or Des Moines University to live and work in rural Iowa. The state could, for example, pay half the tuition for students interested in beginning careers in rural Iowa for a period of time.

The same incentives could be extended to community colleges and people involved in the trades, he said.

“I think we have to figure out exactly how broad that is,” Hubbell said. “I would make it more attractive to go to the smaller towns, and a little bit less attractive to go the Carrolls because there are towns smaller than yours, and even less attractive to go to the big cities.”

Why should farmers and ag-businesspeople trust a Des Moines businessman with life in the Hawkeye State countryside?

First of all, Younkers, under Hubbell’s helm, had more than 15 stores across Iowa, many of them serving rural customers and employing small-town Iowans, he said.

With the Iowa Power Fund, a renewable-energy-boosting program, hatched during the administration of former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver with bipartisan support, investments were made in Nevada, Emmetsburg and Shenandoah and Keokuk, among other rural cities, Hubbell said.

Hubbell also served on the Pioneer Hi-Bred board of directors for 12 years.

“I actually think that I probably have worked in more parts of our state than any of the other candidates,” Hubbell said.

Big picture, Hubbell said he is strong with the strategic parts of business — figuring out markets, reaching customers — and the actual execution of the operation.

“It’s not often that you find people that are really good and interested in both,” Hubbell said. “But I like both.”

He added, “I’m very interested in the details of how businesses work and what people are thinking.”