ByNatalie Krebs / Side Effects Public Media and Iowa Public Radio |
On the eighth floor of Iowa Methodist Hospital in downtown Des Moines, 56-year-old Russell Braley watched daytime TV in one of the recovery units, breathing through a tube running from his nose to an oxygen unit. “I’ve been in motorcycle wrecks. I’ve almost died several times in my lifetime. This was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” Braley, a resident of Des Moines, said about his recent battle with COVID-19. He said the virus nearly killed him.
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.
Relaxing with a cup of coffee at Madeline’s in Riverside, Iowa, you could hear Morgan Rodgers chatting with customers one recent August morning. She knew them all. “We just appreciate our customers and the continued support they’ve given us,” Rodgers, an 11-year resident of Riverside, said about the shop she and her husband, Andy, opened in May 2019. Lyle Muller/IowaWatchMorgan Rodgers realized her dream of being a baker she she and her husband, Andy, opened Madeline’s coffee shop in Riverside in May 2019. The shop is named after her late grandmother, whom she baked with as a child.
PARKERSBURG, Iowa – After a killer tornado in 2008 and the murder of a beloved community leader a year later, many folks in Parkersburg felt they could take just about any punch thrown at them. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. It claimed lives and took a bite at businesses. But as was the case with those prior tragedies, the people of Parkersburg weren’t about to be defined by this latest challenge. Instead they defined themselves by what they would do to overcome — support one another.
BELMOND, Iowa – Rob and Melissa Arnold are emerging from the pandemic of the past year and a half. Instead of waiting it out, the Arnolds took advantage of the opportunity to retool and renovate their restaurant, Sugarpie Bakery & Cafe. The restaurant reopened again to dine-in business in late July. The Arnolds could have reopened sooner. But buoyed by Melissa’s skills with wedding cakes and bakery items, they made ends meet on carryout business and took their time to do the renovation the way they wanted it.
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.
As tourists flock to Iowa’s state parks in record numbers, the park system struggles to sustain adequate funding from the state, despite being a major contributor to its economy and an escape for Iowans amidst a global pandemic, an investigation by IowaWatch has found. Iowa’s park system is one of state government’s most popular programs. Visitations skyrocketed to a record 16.6 million last year. That record reflects an upward trend dating back to 1995. Yet the number of park rangers needed to serve that influx has gone in reverse while state funding for parks remained flat, according to data from the nonprofit Iowa Parks Foundation. “These places have to be maintained to be preserved and protected, and it does require resources,” said Patricia Boddy, a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who was involved in a 2011 comprehensive architectural design study of parks.
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.
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.
Principal Chris Myers sought to make mental health counseling available to students in the rural district of Graettinger-Terril for nearly four years. But each time he thought he might be close, money, or lack thereof, got in the way. Myers’ luck changed in July 2020, when Iowa received $50 million in federal funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka the CARES Act. The act passed in March 2020 as a $2.2 trillion relief package to respond to the economic fallout from COVID-19. Of that $50 million in CARES Act money, $30 million was allocated per capita, at $9.50 per Iowan.