"We're realizing that the manufacturing section of our economy is rapidly changing," he says, sitting at a long wooden conference table in his office at the State Capitol in Des Moines. "That makes it hard for the ordinary person to understand why population is important.... It's all about jobs. The number of jobs and the quality of jobs."
He has a vision of Iowa as a center for a new bioeconomy - using its ubiquitous corn and beans to create everything from T-shirts to fuel. He's trying to retain all the traditional manufacturing jobs as he can.
But most important for the short term, Vilsack says - and the effort he hopes will stem population loss as well - is putting Iowa on the map as a producer of "services," from financial to legal to marketing.
Wells Fargo bank, he notes proudly, just announced that it will build a large new office complex, creating several thousand new jobs around Des Moines. And he frequently touts the unexpected Fast Company designation this month of Des Moines as the "hippest city in the USA."
But even if the jobs are there, will Iowans return? It may be true, as Vilsack likes to say, that Iowans have "rush minutes" as opposed to rush hours. In Des Moines, parking is not only plentiful, it's cheap: One dollar buys you more than three hours at a parking meter, and a downtown garage costs just $7 for 12 hours. And the average cost of a four-bedroom, 2,200 square-foot home is just $175,000.
On the other hand, can the Iowa Cubs really compete with the Chicago Cubs, or the Des Moines Art Center with the Art Institute? Can the clean, empty streets of downtown Des Moines (most of its activity hidden from view in the myriad of skyways that connect buildings) rival the glamour and bustle of Fifth Avenue or the Magnificent Mile?
Vilsack insists, "Everything you can do in a Chicago or New York, you can do in Iowa." Even in today's lean times, he's remained committed to his "Vision Iowa" program, a $2 billion effort to juice up the state's culture and recreation opportunities.