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New welcome signs promise ‘Freedom’ but don’t match Reynolds’ unwelcoming agenda


New welcome signs promise ‘Freedom’ but don’t match Reynolds’ unwelcoming agenda

May 25, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Jeff Morrison
New welcome signs promise ‘Freedom’ but don’t match Reynolds’ unwelcoming agenda
More than four dozen welcome signs across the state will be replaced by the end of 2024. This illustration superimposes the “Freedom to Flourish” welcome sign design on a photo taken June 5, 2014, on Iowa Highway 86 at the Iowa/Minnesota state line in Dickinson County. (Photo and illustration by Jeff Morrison, welcome sign image from Iowa Department of Transportation)

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The Iowa Department of Transportation’s contract lettings for May 21 included one project that repeats six words over and over: “Welcome to Iowa, Freedom to Flourish.”

The contract is for signs at 53 of 62 state border crossings. Three entry points along the Mississippi River don’t have signs, Carter Lake is omitted, and the four others already have new ones.

The lettering is in a very dark teal, with “Welcome to” in script and the rest in sans-serif using a new branding design. The middle of the O in “IOWA” is yellow, to symbolize the sun over a green field. (In places where the letters are in white on a dark background, such as the Iowa DOT’s website, the sun can be mistaken for a fried egg.)

Iowa’s previous welcome-sign slogan, “Fields of Opportunities,” was entirely home-grown. In 1999, 32 high school seniors from across the state brainstormed ideas and the public voted on four finalists. Gov. Tom Vilsack announced the winner at the Iowa State Fair and signs were put up around Jan. 1, 2000.

On Oct. 21, 2022, the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board authorized work with Chicago public relations agency FleishmanHillard “for research to assist in developing a consistent and positive overall brand strategy.” It was paid $305,000 with pandemic relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Reynolds used the phrase “freedom to flourish” at the end of her Condition of the State address Jan. 10, 2023. It wasn’t until July 18, as she touted a massive realignment of state government, that Iowans found out it was the new state slogan.

Ideas out wandering around

“Transportation Commission members insisted Tuesday that they were not bullied by the governor into accepting ‘A State of Minds’ as the state’s new license plate slogan,” the Associated Press reported July 20, 1983. “Instead, said Commission Chairman Robert Rigler of New Hampton, it was a ‘matter of leadership’ when Gov. Terry Branstad telephoned the commission, which the governor appoints, and lobbied for the motto.”

Commissioner Roger Fair of Davenport told the AP, “I cannot vote contrary to the governor’s wishes — he is our leader.” Sioux City Journal mini-editorial accompanying the story, referencing the Veterans Memorial Bridge that was shut down 16 months after it opened to fix a significant fracture, said: “Don’t be surprised, Iowans. Any government that builds bridges that fall apart can easily produce license plate slogans as absurd and useless as ‘a state of minds.’”

The news was as welcome as a broken air conditioner during that summer’s heat wave. Listeners to WHO Radio lambasted the idea. A call-in poll by KGAN-TV was 1,449-to-97 against. Branstad admitted to the Des Moines Register that it was “more cussed than discussed.”

The Register ran letters about it July 31. “If we are trying to convince the world that Iowans are a bunch of idiots, putting ‘A State of Minds’ on license plates will most assuredly do that,” wrote Thelma Sonksen of Odebolt. “Would ‘a state of minds’ allow itself to become so economically poor that its most precious commodity, its young people, would find it necessary to export themselves to other states to find jobs?” asked John Engels of Rockford.

On the day those letters ran, Branstad relented. The white-on-blue license plates, without a slogan, began to be issued in 1985 and were used through 1997. “A State of Minds” never went beyond the initial ad campaign. “Come Explore the Heartland” gave way to “Discover Iowa Treasures” and then “Iowa, You Make Me Smile” as tourism slogans.

Another word for nothing left to cut

Now, after a quarter-century, “Fields of Opportunities” is being put out to pasture. Reynolds is embracing “Freedom to Flourish” so tightly she named 2023’s pardoned turkeys for it. In the past decade, though, that first word has gained baggage.

“It feels like freedom is a word that has been used to weaponize certain rights within the state or prohibiting rights within the state,” Cassie Welsh of Des Moines told WHO-TV last summer.

Instead of “freedom to,” Reynolds and the Legislature are giving Iowans:

There is a difference between wise stewardship of taxpayer money and a government so limited that it is unable or unwilling to provide services that Iowans actually want. Determining if a program or agency has outlived its usefulness needs careful public study, not slash-and-burn tactics behind closed doors. That’s not true freedom, and it won’t lead to flourishing.

But we cannot vote contrary to the governor’s wishes. She is our leader.

This column is republished from Between Two Rivers through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.