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.
Some Ankeny parents are frustrated after receiving a letter Wednesday night that the Ankeny Community School District will not require students to quarantine if they have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
“At this time, our public health authorities have informed us that the district may not quarantine students,” said the letter from Erick Pruitt, who began as district superintendent in July. “We will continue to collaborate with the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Polk County Health Department to ensure our actions are aligned with their direction. We recognize that this guidance is subject to change. Please refer to the Iowa Department of Public Health for the most recent guidance.”
Ankeny is the sixth-largest district in the state with more than 12,000 students and 2,285 employees, according to the district website. LaKeshia Richmond of Ankeny is a mother of three children.
Iowa’s state epidemiologist thinks Iowa is not at a turning point with the delta virus, so far. In an interview with IowaWatch July 16, Dr. Caitlin Pedati also called for Iowans to continue to get vaccinated, use social distancing, masks and other safety measures related to the coronavirus that officially arrived in Iowa in March 2020. She discussed the difficulties of public health and stressed the perseverance of health care workers.
“If I could leave you with anything it would be there really are some wonderful people in public health who never stopped working and are not going to stop even when it’s hard and even when it’s not perfect, because we believe that it’s important work. And we so appreciate the chance to get, you know, good messages out there,” Pedati said.
The number of Iowans getting COVID-19 vaccinations has dropped considerably since June and new cases are rising quickly. New cases and hospitalizations have trended up with daily positives doubling over the last two weeks from an average of 76 cases to 199 per day.
ByNatalie Krebs / Side Effects Public Media and Iowa Public Radio |
It’s a hot evening at the Broadway Neighborhood Center in Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Student volunteers have set up a mobile COVID vaccination clinic among the apartment complexes that house many immigrant and refugee families.
But the clinic struggles to attract residents. In recent weeks, demand for the COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa has declined sharply, even though less than 70 percent of Iowans have had at least one dose.
Andrew Coghill-Behrends, the center’s site director, hits the streets. His goal is to get at least 20 people in for the shot. “It’s really about talking to people and seeing if you can find them where they’re at, and encourage them to come over, said Coghill-Behrends.
Editor’s note: Omar Guadalupe Alcorta is a 2021 graduate from Buena Vista University, where he double majored in Spanish and digital media. While in school, Alcorta served as station manager at KBVU, the university’s radio station, and worked part-time as a producer for Iowa Public Radio and Storm Lake Radio. This story is a script of a podcast he reported and produced. IowaWatch and BVU are longtime partners. KBVU 97.5 The Edge · Same Dream Different Shoes Final
ALCORTA: If a chameleon could talk, and you could ask it, “What color are you?” how would it respond? Would it even have an answer? Or if it did, would its answer be, “It depends.”
Omar Guadalupe Alcorta is a Buena Vista University graduate.