Iowa Business Leaders Nervous About Effects of Legislature's 'Bathroom Bill' Proposal on State's Image, Economy

February 14, 2021

Inyoung Choi, The Des Moines Register 

When North Carolina lawmakers in 2016 adopted a law that barred transgender people from using bathrooms in public facilities that corresponded with their gender identification, the backlash against the state was swift.

Now, with a similar bill moving through the Iowa Legislature to impose restrictions on restroom use in the state's schools, some Iowa business leaders and event organizers are worried the Hawkeye state could face the same sort of repercussions.

In North Carolina, the state suffered damage to both its public image and economy. Major corporations abandoned plans to build or expand facilities in the state and issued statements of opposition. Top musical performers canceled concerts. The NAACP called for a boycott.

And the NCAA said it would stop holding its championship events in the basketball-loving state; the Atlantic Coast Conference likewise made plans to move its postseason basketball tournament; and the NBA threatened to relocate its 2019 All-Star game, scheduled for Charlotte.

A 2017 Associated Press analysis predicted the bill, which the U.S. Justice Department called discriminatory, could end up costing North Carolina more than $3.76 billion over 12 years. Ultimately, after that state's Republican governor lost reelection, lawmakers ended up reworking the law in a compromise with the new Democratic governor, removing the gender restriction in most cases.

Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Catch Des Moines, an organization that markets the metro as a tourism, convention and sports destination, said passage of the Iowa bill could be costly for the city. 

"(There) are some organizations that would not even look at Des Moines to bring events here if we had such a law," Edwards said.

Andrea Woodard of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the metro's chamber of commerce, said in a statement that cultivating "an environment that is welcoming for people of all backgrounds" is "critically important to our region’s talent attraction and retention efforts."

“That is why we and other business organizations in Iowa and across the country have been, and continue to be, opposed to this type of legislation,” said Woodard, the Partnership's senior vice president of government relations and public policy.

The leader of a statewide business group also expressed concern.

"As Iowa looks to grow the population and be an attractive place for workers and continue to expand businesses in the state, Iowa needs to be a welcoming and an inclusive place for all people," said Joe Murphy, executive director of Iowa Business Council. "(That's) going to help drive population, drive workforce, and drive business expansion in the state." 

There is also a potential impact on Des Moines as a site for large-scale sports events. The city currently is slated to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2023. It previously hosted the men’s tournament in 2016 and 2019 and welcomed the NCAA wrestling championships in 2013.

The 2019 tournament generated $8 million in revenue in the city over four days, according to Catch Des Moines.

Chris Connolly, the general manager of the Iowa Events Center, site of the tournament play, noted that the Iowa Legislature previously has considered legislation aimed at restricting bathroom use. A 2018 bill died in committee. This is the first year the bill has gotten a subcommittee vote. 

“This isn’t the first time this has come up,” Connolly said. “We’ve kind of just waited to see what would happen. On the legal side, I don’t know everything about the bill. From what I’ve read, it’s specific to elementary, secondary and nonpublic schools, so what’s on the table right now as far as I can tell or see wouldn’t affect us at Wells Fargo Arena or the convention center. Could that change by 2023? Certainly, it could.

“It’s something we need to keep an eye on and see how it develops, but it’s far from the point where we really need to look at it and make decisions," he said.

Drake University, the official host school of the 2023 Des Moines tournament site, declined through a spokesperson to comment on the bill.

Some other Iowa businesses and groups also stayed mum on the issue. Hy-Vee officals declined to comment. A Kum & Go spokesman told the Des Moines Register the company would send a statement, but none had been issued as of Friday evening. And JD Davis, vice president of public policy, at the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said he hadn't had a chance to review the bill. 

Mike Draper, the famously outspoken owner of the Des Moines-based RAYGUN T-shirt empire, wasn't shy about his opinion.

"How we have come through and still are in a global pandemic, near-financial collapse, and this is at the top of the priority list for Iowa's elected officials is beyond me," Draper said. "It is so closed-minded, backward-thinking, and unnecessary, that it makes the state look hostile to the modern world."

Edwards of Catch Des Moines, putting it more gently, said the measure runs counter to society's trend.

"We're always 'Iowa-nice' here," Edwards said. "That's the way the world is going. That's the way America is going right now."

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