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How A Handful Of Iowa Towns Thrive, Rise Above Rural Decline

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Lyle Muller
/
IowaWatch
Downtown Columbus Junction, Iowa, on June 23, 2021.

Bloomfield, Iowa, lacks the advantages some small Iowa towns have. It is not on the interstate highway system or a major airport.

But Bloomfield, Davis County’s seat in southern Iowa 11 miles from Iowa’s border with Missouri, grew its population from 2,640 in 2010 to 2,682 in 2020, new U.S. census data show.

“Even if people aren’t working here, they’re living here,” Tammy Roberts, the town’s community development director, said.

A handful of small Iowa towns like Bloomfield, 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. These outliers come at a time when census data show Iowans increasingly living in urban areas. The growing small towns have one or more of the following working in their favor, a four-month IowaWatch investigation revealed during visits to 58 towns of 5,000 or fewer people:

  • Infrastructure such as high-speed internet, local phone and cable decision makers, basic amenities such as good streets and lighting, and restored or replaced old buildings so that enough housing exists.
  • A local attraction that brings people into town to hear a story, including the arts and other recreational outlets.
  • Creative businesses that attract out-of-town shoppers but also embrace a sense of community pride that leads to coordinated business and local philanthropy efforts.
  • Readily available health care.
  • Adequate day care options.
  • Strong local schools.
  • A sense of being safe.
  • Aggressive pursuit of community development grants.

Some of these efforts can be duplicated in other towns but success would not be guaranteed because each town has its own dynamics, experts IowaWatch interviewed said.

“A lot of this stuff is so fuzzy, it’s really difficult to tie it to one particular factor,” Liesl Eathington, Iowa State University economics researcher and the Iowa Community Indicators Program coordinator, said.

“The bottom line is, we can’t figure out, really, the magic recipe for growth.”

Population growth is not the exclusive measure of whether or not a small Iowa town is vital, IowaWatch found.

The population in Audubon, in western Iowa, has dropped from 2,382 in 2000 and 2,176 in 2010 to 2,053 in 2020. All of Audubon County only has 5,674 residents, down from 6,119 in the 2010 census.

Yet, Audubon opened a $2.6 million community center in November 2018 and, already, volunteers for the non-profit center are planning a $2 million expansion. Residents volunteer to show movies for $4 admission Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the Rose Theater movie house. The town has farmers’ markets, the annual T-Bone Festival and thriving businesses. Even Albert the Bull, the huge statue greeting motorists from the south, got attention, with a recent $18,000 renovation.

“I guess our common theme in the area is volunteers,” Sara Slater, Audubon County’s economic development and tourism director, said.

Audubon is 75 to 80 minutes from the nearest metropolitan areas — Omaha-Council Bluffs and Des Moines — so sustaining itself is important. Denver, meanwhile, benefits in eastern Iowa by being near the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area, where jobs exist.

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Scott Krebsbach, Denver

Denver’s 2020 census count was 1,919, up from 1,780 in 2010 and 1,627 in 2000. “You graduate a class of 65 kids but you have an incoming class of 85 kids,” Scott Krebsbach, Denver community school district board president, said.

Denver school district voters approved in March 2020, with 85% voting yes, a $7.75 million bond issue for a new middle/high school addition to the district’s Cyclone Center arts and athletics facility. The Cyclone Center was built after a similar vote in 2016.

All of the district’s 52 seniors graduated in 2020, giving the high school a 100% graduation rate for the year. The class scored 82% in both reading and math proficiency the previous year, when the students were juniors, state Department of Education data show.

Bremer County, where Denver is, had a June unemployment rate of 3.7% while Black Hawk County, where Waterloo is, had a 5.2% unemployment rate in June, Iowa Workforce Development data show.

What makes a small town successful? With Sara Slater, Audubon IA

Analyzing a small town

Roberts said one of the smartest things Bloomfield’s business leaders did in recent years was a thorough needs assessment that included why those needs exist. Bloomfield Main Street, the local business support organization, got an $18,000 grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Iowa program for the study, which Main Street Iowa and Bloomfield Main Street conducted in 2018.

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Tammy Roberts, Bloomfield

They analyzed existing housing, income and jobs. Making the exercise especially useful, they dove head-on into weaknesses — deteriorating infrastructure like streets and sewers, for example — along with strengths.

“It’s very holistic,” Roberts, who was Bloomfield Main Street’s director when the study was done, said. “You’ve got to have that understanding of what your businesses think and what your communities think.”

That doesn’t mean total agreement. Mayor Dan Wiegand vetoed in 2018 moving forward with a streetscape project for which Bloomfield had more than $600,000 in grants. The City Council vote approving the project was 3-2 but four votes were needed to override the veto.

Wiegand said in his veto message the timetable for completing the project was unattainable. The veto has those supporting the project hoping he is booted out of office this coming fall.

Wiegand said in an IowaWatch interview he hopes others see Bloomfield as a place they’d like to live in, with close-by industry for jobs, local health care and day care options, and a good school system. “It’s just a safe community for people to live in,” he said.

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Dan Wiegand, Bloomfield mayor

And, it has local businesses that provide essentials, including a grocery store, shops, restaurants and local utilities. The benefits of having goods in local businesses showed during the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews in town revealed.

“Bloomfield has everything it needs to sustain itself,” said Tori Ward, a six-month Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development contract employee originally from Memphis, Missouri, and working through September at Bloomfield Main Street. “That’s crazy to me.”

Towns like Belmond in Wright County are trying to replace old businesses. An Eaton Corp. engine valve manufacturing plant in Belmond that employed 1,000 people in the early 1980s was down to 182 workers when it closed for good in 2020.

The company had been laying off people in phases over several years. Belmond City Manager Darrel Steven Carlyle said the Belmond Growth Alliance is working with Eaton and a Des Moines real estate broker to market the company’s building for potential reuse.

“We are doing a mass mailing to industries similar to Eaton who would have a use for the facility. And we’ve had some nibbles. So that’s encouraging,” Carlyle said.

Belmond’s 2020 population count was 2,463, up from 2,376 in 2010 but down from 2,560 in 2000, census data show.

Relying on a story

Having a story to tell helps a small town. Dyersville’s story was on full display the night of Aug. 12 when FOX Sports broadcast the first Field of Dreams Major League Baseball game from the tourist attraction just outside of town that became famous with the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams.”

“I just think we had a very good event. Just a lot of good will,” Dyersville Mayor James Heavens, who watched the New York Yankees-Chicago White Sox game in Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s box, said.

“There’s something about the movie site and that movie that still strikes a nerve,” Heavens said about the baseball field in a cornfield where the movie was filmed. The Aug. 12 game was played on a specially built ball field near the old movie set.

Dyersville — whose 2020 population was 4,477, up from 4,058 in 2010 and 4,035 in 2000 — already had other attractions in northeast Iowa before the movie. Nicknamed the “The Farm Toy Capital of the World,” it has the National Farm Toy Museum because of the famous Ertl farm toy company that is in town and now Ertl/TOMY.

The Basilica of St. Francis Xavier church on Third Street also draws tourists to Dyersville. The result of all this is a town that can count successes other than population growth, Heavens said. The city is in good financial shape and moving forward, he said.

“Having a story to tell helps, but I think the other thing here is we really have an ability to execute plans,” Heavens said. “Even as objective as I can be, Dyersville is a very successful city.”

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Lyle Muller
Krista Hershberger works at the Kalona Visitors Center, where information about tourist attractions in the northern Washington County town is available. Hershberger grew up in Kalona. Photo taken June 11, 2021.

A little more than 100 miles south of Dyersville, Kalona markets a history that includes artisans and local Mennonite and Amish residents who bring different religious customs but also unique businesses to the area. “A lot of folks are interested in that,” Krista Hershberger, assistant director of the Kalona Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s just such a different way of doing life.”

Ed Miller grew up in Kansas before moving to Kalona 45 years ago after marrying a woman from nearby Wayland. “I think it’s important to the people here to understand what their heritage is, and to see it in displays,” he said.

Miller, whose great-great grandfather lived in Kalona in the 1860s before moving to Kansas, volunteers at the Kalona Historical Museum.

Kalona, on the north edge of Washington County, south of Iowa City, has 2,630 residents in the new census, up from 2,363 in 2010 and 2,293 in 2000. It has the museum, several festivals and downtown businesses that cater to people interested in specialty shops. “People like to come to Kalona because it’s a friendly community,” Ronald Slechta, publisher of the local newspaper, said.

Being a half-hour drive from Iowa City, the state’s fifth-largest city, helps Kalona because of people in that metro area who take the short drive to Kalona for its offerings.

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Lyle Muller
Riverside, Iowa, laid claim to being the future birthplace of the fictional starship captain James T. Kirk, of the Star Trek series. It holds a Trek Fest at the end of each June. The town has a Star Trek museum.

Near Kalona, the town of Riverside created its own story: the future birthplace of the fictional Star Trek starship captain James T. Kirk.

Civic leaders made the claim in 1985 for their summer community festival, coining the name Trek Fest, after reading that Kirk would be born in Iowa in the future. Paramount Pictures, which owns the Star Trek film franchise, accepted Riverside’s claim.

But Riverside, whose population in 2020 grew to 1,060 from 993 in 2010 and 928 in 2000, also benefits from a nearby casino. The casino’s foundation provides grants for community betterment projects that include rebuilding streets and other infrastructure but also amenities tied to community aesthetics, the arts, recreation and education.

LeClaire, at 4,710 people in 2020, up from 3,765 in 2010 and 2,847 in 2000, has a story to tell as the home of Antique Archaeology, where the national television show, “American Pickers,” originated. But the town also benefits from being near recreation and the Quad Cities in eastern Iowa. It hosts the annual Tug Fest, during which people in the Mississippi River town pull on a 2,700-foot rope that spans the river in a contest with a team on the other side, in Port Byron, Illinois.

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Lyle Muller
Riverside, Iowa, laid claim to being the future birthplace of the fictional starship captain James T. Kirk, of the Star Trek series. It holds a Trek Fest at the end of each June. The town has a Star Trek museum.

Other Iowa towns did not grow in the 2020 census, despite having local attractions. Columbus Junction, with a Tyson meat packing plant that provides jobs and a vibrant Latino community, dropped in population to 1,830, from 1,899 in 2010 and 1,900 in 2000. Meanwhile, West Liberty, with a similar story, grew to 3,858 in 2020, from 3,736 in 2010 and 3,332 in 2000.

McGregor, population dropping to 742 in the 2020 census, and neighboring Marquette, population rising to 429, have the Mississippi River, Pikes Peak State Park and Marquette’s casino. Nashua, dropping to 1,551 people, has the nearby Little Brown Church made famous in song; Sac City, population dropping to 2,063, has the proclaimed largest popcorn ball; Elk Horn, population dropping to 601 has the Museum of Danish America.

Away from a big city, in western Iowa, The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption draws people to the small town of West Bend. Started more than 100 years old, it is the world’s largest manmade grotto. West Bend’s population was close to steady for the first time in a while, with 781 people for the 2020 census. The town’s populations were 785 in 2010 and 834 in 2000 but as many as 940 people as recently as 1980.

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Lyle Muller
The Grotto of the Redemption at West Bend, Iowa. Photo taken June 18, 2021.

COVID-19 impact

Being self-sustaining was helpful during a 2020 business shutdown that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only essential businesses were allowed to remain open during the shutdown, and small-town businesses that relied on relatively small customer bases felt the pain.

“We’ve lost out on money those few months that we were closed, and we’ve lost out all the times we haven’t been doing dine-in,” said Rob Arnold, who owns Sugarpie Cafe and Bakery in Belmond with his wife, Melissa Arnold. “But I’d rather not have people die – especially at the beginning of the pandemic before we got vaccinated.”

Belmond regained some population in 2020, with 2,436 people. It had been dropping, from 2,376 in 2010 and 2,560 in 2000.

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Pat Kinney
Rob Arnold and his wife Melissa of Sugarpie Café & Bakery in downtown Belmond took advantage of the state-ordered pandemic closure of their dine-in business to renovate the inside of their establishment – and Rob took piano lessons to entertain guests once they reopened to dine-in traffic.

Linda Dawson, owner of Snips of Thread Quilt Shop and The Yard Pantry in the southern Iowa town of Humeston, tried going online with marginal success during the pandemic. “You have to be out and about to come to a small town, and if that doesn’t happen, OK, now what does that mean?” she said.

Thriving businesses in a small Iowa town have to keep moving forward, to engage people, Dawson said. “People want to be connected. I don’t care who you are or where you drive,” she said. “We might have to change how that happens.”

Humeston has been losing population, from 495 in 2010 to the 2020 census count of 465. Still, a group of business owners, including Dawson, bring customers to town by working together, promoting each other and the small-town feel they provide.

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Pat Kinney
John Luhring started Parkersburg Hardware and Garden Center in 2018. Deemed essential during the pandemic he helped other community businesses by buying and handing out gift cards.

That happened elsewhere. When a longtime Parkersburg hardware store closed after 45 years, John Luhring, whose parents run a monument company, and whose brother is the city administrator, put together a business plan and started his own hardware store in early 2018. Two years later, the pandemic hit. The store remained open, deemed an essential business during the pandemic.

“It ended up being a blessing” Luhring said. “We’ve seen an increase in sales; we’ve seen an increase in local customers coming in. And really, it made people aware.

“I don’t know how many times I heard, during the pandemic, ‘We didn’t know you were here;’ ‘we haven’t had a chance to check you out.’ The pandemic really provided people an opportunity to check out local businesses.”

Parkersburg’s 2020 census count was 2,015, up from 1,870 in 2010 and 1,889 in 2000.

State assistance

Iowa has doled out $300,000 in Rural Innovation Grants each of the last two fiscal years to rural towns and counties to fund projects that local leaders hope put a spark in their towns. All but seven of the 34 cash awards handed out in the program’s first two years — fiscals 2020 and 2021 — went to towns with fewer than 5,000 people and all went to towns of around 10,000 or fewer, state Department of Economic Development reports show.

The state funded projects like sound and lighting gear for a community theater technical training program for youth in St. Ansgar; design work for three housing developments in Manning; developing a rural grocery delivery system in Manning and Lenox; leadership training for Latino communities in Hampton, Tama and Perry; and improvements to Chariton’s downtown square. Other projects focused on business development, aesthetics and training, as well.

Demand for the funding exceeds supply. While 22 applicants sought a total of $416,395 from the state in fiscal 2020 for local innovation projects, 64 sought $1.2 million in fiscal 2021, state reports show. That meant $3 in requests were rejected for every $1 approved. A new round of applications is being accepted for fiscal 2022, which began July 1.

Jill Tueth, Humeston, Iowa

Iowa established the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative for the Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2018 and later added the Center for Rural Revitalization for making rural grants. The state also has a Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative in a partnership with the Iowa Rural Development Council.

Empower Rural Iowa gives $10,000 grants to towns to conduct rural housing assessments and, in some cases, demolish dilapidated homes. Leaders in small towns interviewed by IowaWatch said they face a housing shortage.

“We have some communities that haven’t had a new house built in 10, 20 years,” Liesl Seabert, the Center for Rural Revitalization director, said in an IowaWatch interview.

Ten of the 60 towns applying in fiscal 2020 and six of the eight applying in fiscal 2021 won grants. The towns work with the Iowa State University Extension Service to determine what kind of housing they need and how to deal with factors such as zoning and housing codes to make housing available.

“It’s much more action focused than to just produce a report that will stay on the shelf,” Seabert said. “We know it’s not solving housing, but we are helping.”

Empower Rural Iowa also has doled out more than $56 million — $50 million of that from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — in grants the past three years to build high-speed broadband in the state, although plenty more work remains to be done, state data show.

As much as $97.5 million is available this fiscal year in the broadband program. The state received 178 bids by the July 28 due date. An intent to award grants is scheduled for September.

The Empower Rural Iowa Task Force has made several recommendations for the program that include developing the next generation of local business owners and to continue state funding for the rural development programs.

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Emily Clausen, Ogden

Emily Clausen, city administrator in Ogden, said state rural economic development experts are working with that town on replacing a grocery store that burned down in November 2019, one year after new owners bought it.

She said state grants also have been used for other projects in town. “We’ve done (grants) for the new fire trucks, playground equipment, downtown street lights,” Clausen said.

Ogden is losing people after gaining in 1980 through 2010. The 2020 census showed it with 2,007 people, down from 2,044 in 2010 and 2,023 in 2000. That hasn’t deterred Clausen. She said she and her daughter have bought the town’s flower shop and have gone into business together.

“I’m going to have a side gig,” she said.

Suzanne Behnke of IowaWatch contributed to this report. 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.

This story was published under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners by SoutheastIowaUnion.com, which covers the Iowa towns of Washington, Mount Pleasant and Fairfield. Additionally, a version of this story was republished or broadcast by 128 news agencies nationwide via the Public News Service News outlets sharing the story include these in Iowa: The Adair News, KCHE AM and FM in Cherokee, CityView in Des Moines, the Diagonal Progress, KICI-LP FM in Iowa City.