About this project: Hidden EpidemicsIowaWatch reported this story as part of a project on disasters and mental health with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations, California Health Report, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, City Limits, InvestigateWest, The Island Packet, The Lens, The Mendocino Voice, Side Effects and The State. PARKERSBURG, Iowa – For 25 years, disasters beckoned Chris Luhring to help. On Aug. 10, he was called again — to respond to the same kind of devastation he’d endured 12 years earlier – and to provide hope and courage amid the darkness and despair delivered by a savage derecho. Luhring, the city administrator of Parkersburg, prepared for an afternoonmeeting at City Hall Aug.
While local incentives can bring businesses to small Iowa towns, they are no guarantee that the town can be vital or bring visitors, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation of towns with fewer than 5,000 people showed. The reasons vary.
With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A selected collection of downtown or main street photos taken in Iowa’s small towns in summer 2021 for “Small Town Solution,” an IowaWatch report on how these towns try to remain vital while losing population. A handful of small Iowa towns with populations of less than 5,000 and not part of a larger metro area, bucked the trend and grew their populations in the 2020 census data just released. Growing small towns have one or more factors working in their favor, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation revealed for this special report. Photos by Lyle Muller, except for Belmond, La Porte City, Denver and Parkersburg, which are by Pat Kinney. THE LATEST STORY: HIGH HURDLES EXIST FOR IOWA’S HOMEGROWN, SMALL-TOWN BUSINESSES
READ THE FIRST STORY HERE: HOW A HANDFUL OF IOWA TOWNS THRIVE, RISE ABOVE RURAL DECLINE
READ OTHER STORIES IN THIS PROJECT HERE
Linnea Kooistra’s roots in farming go back 10 generations. She and her husband, Joel, were both raised on dairy farms, and they operated their own in Woodstock, Illinois, for over 40 years. But in 2018, they were confronted with the hard decision of selling their herd of almost 300 cows. After months of deliberation, they decided to sell the herd in part because they relied on immigrant workers to care for and milk the cows, and they feared losing their workforce. “The labor situation, you know, it was just so hostile,” Kooistra said.
A handful of small Iowa towns with 5,000 or fewer people and not part of a larger metro area bucked the trend in the 2020 census and grew their populations. These towns grew populations at a time when the 2020 census showed Iowa’s urban population growing to 64% of the state’s 3.16 million people. The share of urban dwellers in Iowa was near 61% in both 2010 and 2000, 58% in 1990, and 57% in 1980. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A four-month IowaWatch investigation that included visits to 58 towns of 5,000 or fewer people turned up examples of growing rural communities. One of those growing in population isn’t even incorporated, but counted, none the less, by the U.S. Census Bureau.
HUMESTON, Iowa – Terrie and Tom Woods enjoy road trips to small Midwest towns and their locally owned stores, which explains why the retired Sherwood, Arkansas, couple ended up in Humeston in mid-May. “We just like small towns,” Terrie Woods said about being eight-and-a-half hours away from home and searching through Civil War-themed fabric at Snips of Thread Quilt Shop and The Yarn Pantry. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A group of downtown shop owners in this southern Iowa town of 465 people love stories like that. They see it as a sign that their efforts are working when collaborating to make Humeston a vibrant place, even though the town lost population in the 2020 census from the 494 counted in the 2010 census.
“Our businesses work well together to promote Humeston,” Leigh Ann Coffey, a local real estate agent, said. “We’re not in competition with each other.”
Their pitch: good products, good service and the charm of small-town shops.
AUDUBON, Iowa – City leaders in this west Iowa town know their priorities: more affordable housing, general aesthetics like clean yards and kept-up buildings, and a robust U.S. Highway 71 corridor into and out of town. They know because residents told them so at a city forum the night of August 17.
DENVER, Iowa – The Bremer County community of Denver, which has dubbed itself “The Mile Wide City,” in contrast to its altitudinally enhanced Colorado counterpart, had quite a mountain to climb out of the pandemic, business, school and community leaders said. But it climbed out. “Denver was fortunate,” said Gene Leonhart, a former longtime mayor, who still serves on the city Planning and Zoning Commission. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
Leonhart and others who were interviewed for the IowaWatch project, “Small Town Solutions,” said the city had a lot going for it headed into the pandemic. IowaWatch spent four months checking into towns that buck the declining trend of other rural areas and show signs of a growing population, a strong sense of community, activities and schools.
Voters in the Denver Community School District, on the cusp of that pandemic, approved a bond referendum for a new high school and middle school building — just a few years after building a new community recreation, arts and events center, called the Cyclone Center, so named after the school teams’ mascot.
BLOOMFIELD, Iowa – A lot of people were paying attention to Bloomfield, in southern Iowa, a few years ago. “Bloomfield sets sustainable design example for Iowa,” a Jan. 1, 2016, Des Moines Register headline read above a story about a new solar power project to supplement the power Bloomfield’s municipal utility buys from Southern Iowa Electric.
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“Governor Reynolds, Lt. Governor Gregg Celebrate Bloomfield’s New Solar Project,” the Iowa Department of Economic Development and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office titled an Aug. 1, 2018, news release. “Bloomfield has demonstrated exactly the type of innovative and forward thinking we hoped to foster when we released the Iowa Energy Plan in December 2016,” Reynolds said in that release.
COALVILLE, Iowa – Ask people who live in Coalville if they see a need to incorporate this town of 651 residents southeast of Fort Dodge. They’ll say no. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
Doing so would mean setting up city government with, at minimum, a city council. “We have all the services and amenities that we want,” Webster County Supervisor Chairman Mark Campbell, who lives between Coalville and Otho, said. “And, we can easily run in (to Fort Dodge) and, yet, get to go home and relax with a country setting.”
The lack of city government has not lessened interest in living in Coalville.
LA PORTE CITY, Iowa – This town emerged from the pandemic “ready to rumble” – literally. The city of La Porte City completed a $3 million “streetscape” renovation of Main Street downtown while many businesses were shut down in 2020. It included a restoration of the raised-brick pavement in the street that autos and carriages rode over for generations. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
“People wanted the bricks back because they like that rumble,” Mayor Dave Neil, a former Iowa state labor commissioner and member of the Iowa Board of Regents, said. But there have also been losses due to the coronavirus.