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Bigger isn't always better for growing older in Iowa

 A street view of downtown Bancroft.
Courtesy of Marian Krzyzowski
The Main Street Pub & Grill in Bancroft makes use of an old department store building.

Rural towns are shrinking and growing older, but ISU researchers have identified some that support aging in place better than others.

The world's largest popcorn ball in Sac City is quite a sight to see, but it's not the reason people are choosing to retire in the northwest Iowa town.

Bruce Perry, a Sac City council member and resident, says it's the sense of community that attracts people to the small town of 2,000.

Perry, who is himself heavily involved in the community, works as a church musician and teaches music lessons. He says there are employment opportunities at Sac City’s schools, hospitals and small businesses.

In fact, he says there are too many jobs and not enough people to fill them.

And yet the small town thrives despite its size. Sac City boasts amenities including a golf course, aquatic center, pickleball courts, indoor and outdoor pools, an assisted living facility, independent living facility and a nursing home.

It’s a prime example, according to one research group at Iowa State University, of a “smart senior town” — communities with decreasing populations that maintain a high quality of life and satisfied residents thanks to steps taken that allow them to “shrink smart.”

Iowa's small towns are changing 

It’s no secret that Iowa's rural towns have seen a population decrease. Since the 1980s, younger people have been leaving for jobs in Des Moines and other larger cities. What resulted was a smaller younger population and a larger older population in rural towns.

ISU sociology professor Dave Peters and visiting scholar Ilona Matysiak co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Rural Studies earlier this year, which illustrates their findings on how small towns can plan for a successful future that “preserve(s) a high quality of life for all residents.” They’ve identified eight towns that meet their criteria in Iowa, and hope their findings can help other "vulnerable" Iowa towns shrink smart as well.

 A street view of downtown Sac City, Iowa.
Courtesy of Marian Krzyzowski
Main Street in Sac City

"Sac City is probably one of our best examples of shrink smart, in that the quality of the services, the quality of the government, the quality of the community, it's phenomenal," Peters said to KCUR's Frank Morris in 2018.

These shrink-smart communities, according to Peters, are made possible due to their social infrastructure.

"Basically, [it's] the town's ability to come together with good leadership, and try to address these issues in creative ways," he said on IPR’s Talk of Iowa.

Peters and Matysiak collected data from towns in Iowa whose populations were between 500 and 10,000 people in 1990, like Bancroft in Kossuth County.

Peters noted that smart senior towns like Bancroft are able to identify high-priority projects, raise money locally without government assistance and find volunteers to execute the work in a timely manner. It’s what makes the difference between a community that's shrinking smart and one that’s simply declining, he said.

Crysti Neuman, city director of the town of 700 people, said she moved to Bancroft from the Chicago/Milwaukee area about 10 years ago after seeing a job opening in the local paper. She said she also wanted to live closer to her father.

"It was just kind of one of those spontaneous decisions," she said.

Shortly after moving to Bancroft, Neumann took a drive and discovered a rural town that was alive.

"There's people out, there's people doing things," she said.

Neuman notes that Bancroft has the resources (including a health center, grocery store, community spaces, library and golf course) to keep seniors social and satisfied.

As an added bonus, the cost of living is significantly less expensive, especially compared to the many seniors who choose to retire in the Southwest United States (think Phoenix or Albuquerque).

In order for other small towns to shrink smart, the researchers recommend they partner with neighboring communities to share costs for services, programs and events and recognize the large role older residents play in their communities when it comes to contributions and quality-of-life. They also recommend involving younger people and newcomers in local decision-making and showing support for change.

The researchers plan on publishing another paper in the coming year that pulls data from two "smart" towns, and two "vulnerable" towns. They hope that their findings will be able to help other small towns stay afloat. Funding from their latest study came from the Fulbright Poland, Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange, and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Phineas Pope served as a digital production assistant at Iowa Public Radio from 2023 - 2024.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa