Guest Commentary

Guest commentary by Kent Carlson


And the horse you rode in on


A drive down an Iowa interstate can be pretty boring. Sure, a county mounty makes an occasional drug bust, or pulls over a van full of illegals. And there’s always the Iowa classic… an overturned 18-wheeler full of squealing pigs. But generally, moseying down I-80 or I-35 is coma-inducing, so an interesting diversion is always welcome. A few weeks ago I decided to break up the drive by stopping by a place called “Cowboy Up Western Emporium” on the north side of the I-80 and Highway 169 intersection. Most people know it as the Adel-DeSoto exit. Thanks to a grove of trees, the place is difficult to spot from the interstate, even though it’s just a stone’s throw away.

The rear of the building houses a drive-thru feed store, a unique idea that has actually caught on with locals. In front is a retail store that sells western-wear, boots, saddles, home décor items and other western-inspired products. The store has some really nice things. The retail store owner, Lanny Quayle, is no greenhorn. In 1995 Quayle started business in Adel and relocated to DeSoto in March of 2007. He was hoping to lasso some of the 25,000 drifters that pass in front of the building each day. To almost anyone, that would seem like a brilliant strategy. But to Quayle’s dismay, the shop attracts only about a half-dozen visitors a day. And like any business, not all of those visitors leave as customers.

How could that be? The place has some great stuff. It’s nice enough. Lanny is knowledgeable. What’s the problem?

As usual, it’s government — local, state and federal.

Marketing is always a big deal with a retail business. In Lanny’s case, he has a huge volume of potential customers flowing past his store who have no idea it exists. Local sign ordinances limit what he can do on the property. Billboards are ungodly expensive for a small business. Lanny investigated and found billboards cost thousands per month. So he checked out those small, blue DOT signs that advertise businesses and attractions along the interstate. For under a thousand dollars a year, the Department of Transportation will provide two signs in each direction. They are a great alternative for small businesses. But thanks to politics and bureaucracy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a small business on one of the signs.

So who is eligible? Gas stations, hotels, restaurants, casinos, racetracks, sporting goods stores with at least 100,000 square feet of retail space, malls with at least 50 stores, and a host of others that fit the arbitrary conditions imposed by Iowa lawmakers and the lobbyists who line their pockets.

If that doesn’t leave a burr under your saddle, the Feds are even worse. Thanks to prodding from Lady Bird Johnson, her husband pushed through the “Highway Beautification Act” in 1965. That law effectively conveyed the right of ownership and control over everything the driver sees from property owners to government. Revisions to the law in 1974 further expanded government control.

When Lanny parked a horse trailer with a sign advertising “Cowboy Up” in a friend’s field a few miles from his business, the DOT was all over him like flies on, well, you know. Thanks to government regulations, hundreds, if not thousands of small businesses located within a few miles from Iowa’s largest transportation pipelines might as well be on Pluto. Has it occurred to anyone at the statehouse travelers might like to know there is a pharmacy, a grocery store, a medical clinic, or a hardware store two miles from the interstate in Earlham?

While Lanny Quayle is struggling to keep “Cowboy Up” from going under, the Iowa Department of Economic Development has handed out $9,270,362 in tax credits to “Changing Horse Productions.” Iowa taxpayers are subsidizing a television show called “Saddle Up with Dennis Brouse” that “celebrates the relationship between horse and human.” In fact before Iowa Film Office Director Tom Wheeler was told to hit the trail, he sounded downright giddy about handing out taxpayer’s money. He said the exposure the show was receiving “is a testament to the quality and success of the series and the tax incentive program.”

Maybe, but thousands of Iowa business owners have enough horse sense to know economic development money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging things to grow. CV


Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.


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