Iowans who spend time working on small-town vitality in the state say small, rural communities will not survive urban flight without taking risks or community leaders willing to take them.
“I have concerns that places that want to grow are doing it based on a strategy of stand-pat-edness, I guess,” Bill Menner, a former Obama administration U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development director for Iowa, said.
“If you think you can grow your community by staying the same, you’re probably not going to grow your community,” Menner, of Grinnell, said in an interview for an IowaWatch series, Small Town Solutions. He is executive director of the Iowa Rural Health Association.
The IowaWatch series reported that Iowa towns with fewer than 5,000 people but remaining vital, despite losing population in some instances, benefitted from one or more factors that included: creative businesses, updated infrastructure, readily available health care, child care, the arts, recreation, a sense of being safe, strong local schools and a sense of community pride.
“These folks in these towns that are making things happen are promoting change, or an openness to change,” Menner said. “And in some places that’s not something that’s an option.”
Options don’t exist where people have difficulty accepting new ways of doing things or welcoming new people, Menner said. “That may be too much for some places. And if they don’t have a leader or leaders, elected or otherwise, who are willing to promote that concept, nothing’s going to change.”
Keeping vitality in Iowa’s small towns is of statewide interest because the 2020 census showed Iowa’s rural population losing ground to urban flight. Three of every five Iowans lives in one of the state’s 85 cities of 5,000 or more people. The rest live in 923 incorporated or unincorporated towns or outside of town, an IowaWatch analysis of census data shows.
Concern is strong enough that the annual Iowa Ideas conference, hosted Thursday and Friday, Oct. 14-15, by The Gazette newspaper of Cedar Rapids, devoted a session to the sense of community.
“When I see cool things happening in any of my small towns, inevitably, it’s like one person or a small group of people who had this really cool idea, and they had the passion and enthusiasm and maybe a little bit of capital to get it going,” Jason Neises, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque’s community development coordinator, said at the teleconference.
“But it wasn’t a committee. It wasn’t some planned development process. It was, like, some cool person who had this cool idea. And they exist in small towns. And they happen in places where people say, ‘that is awesome.’”
Neises works with rural areas in seven northeast Iowa counties on ways to make community development decisions at the local level in a program called Heart & Soul, which brings together people who traditionally are not invited to make decisions because they are not part of an established power structure. That includes minorities.
For example, the Dubuque-based foundation sponsored the establishment of the Northeast Iowa Funders Network. The network has helped Postville and its Latino population grow cultural diversity and has helped create a Clayton County Energy District as a pilot program for the rest of the state.
NEED TO RESPOND
Most of Iowa’s small towns are losing people. An IowaWatch analysis of 2020 census data showed that 636, or 70%, of the state’s 923 incorporated and unincorporated towns with fewer than 5,000 people lost population or did not add people since 2010. Another 41 of those towns gained only 1% in population. The remaining 246 small towns, or one of every four, gained population.
Dave Miglin, a West Des Moines executive who took on a unique personal challenge to visit all of Iowa’s incorporated towns and cities – small and large – said he saw a lot of towns where people had given up on having anything vital. Iowa had 945 incorporated towns at the end of 2020.
There were 955 when Miglin, a media and digital vice president for Strategic America in West Des Moines and a Broadlawns Medical Center trustee, started his visits. He made the trips in a five-year period that ended in July 2021.
Clues of towns giving up included run-down buildings, overgrown weeds and grass, and general disinterest in how the town looked, he said.
But he said he also came across several small towns that he felt had their own kind of charm, like Clayton, Iowa, population 45, at the bottom of Clayton County’s bluffs in northeast Iowa along the Mississippi River.
“It’s like a little lake community. And they’ve got this great little restaurant bar, and people coming in,” Miglin said. “And you just sat there, and you saw a community that it’s not very big. But what they have, they make the most of.”
NEED FOR NEW FACES
Sarah Grunewaldt, executive director of Main Street Washington, Iowa, said at the Iowa Ideas teleconference’s Oct. 14 session on community building that leaders who can make change in small towns probably are not traditional, long-established government leaders.
“If someone says, ‘we have tried that, we can’t do it,’ my response is: just because we tried it before doesn’t mean we can’t ask and try it again,” Grunewaldt said.
“Sometimes the retirement of the old dogs is good. And sometimes it’s knowing when to get out of the way and just letting people … take their idea and run with it.”
New ideas also can expand cultural diversity in towns that have little or none, interviews and speakers revealed. Iowa’s population of 3.2 million in 2020 was 91% white, the overwhelming racial makeup of small towns in the state. Black Iowans comprised 4% of the state’s 2020 census count.
Another 6.3% of Iowa was Latino. Towns with fewer than 5,000 people like Postville, Columbus Junction and West Liberty have significant Latino populations, as do towns with fewer than 15,000 people, like Perry and Storm Lake.
Grunewaldt said a group called Latinos for Washington has formed to help local immigrants with the citizenship process. Latino youth are getting involved in sports and activities while Latino-owned businesses are opening. She cited a Honduran-owned grocery store. “They would not have existed 10 years ago, but they’re here now and they’re thriving,” she said.
Menner said being open to new people is a challenge in a small town but necessary for staying vital. Iowa’s 3.6% population growth the past 10 years was below the 6.3% national average.
“If there are places that don’t like immigrants and aren’t welcoming to them, and bend over backwards to push them away, they’re probably not going to be growing or have any hope of growing because that’s the demographic that’s changing rural communities,” he said.
Menner said a town’s need for vitality boils down to needing enough people to support business and the rest of what a town can offer.
“It’s all about capacity at the end of the day,” he said. “There are towns of 1,500 or smaller that are just knocking the ball out of the park because they’ve got leaders and engaged people and a vision and a capacity to make things happen. And, then, there are bigger cities that are clueless.
“So, really, it’s about the place. But it’s about the people, too.”
IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.