Sizing Up Small Towns
Rethinking Success in Rural Iowa
Becky Dietzler calls a friendly greeting to a family entering the Turkey River Mall in Elkader. “Is this your first time here?” One of the visitors nods. “We're always looking for something, and when we read about this place, we had to come see.”
Meanwhile, outside the shop on Main Street, cars jockey for parking places as visitors stream into Elkader's one-of-a-kind boutiques to shop and into Mediterranean and Irish restaurants to dine.
A trailer filled with canoes rumbles by, heading upriver with boaters and anglers out to enjoy the Turkey River Corridor, a designated Iowa Great Place. Public and private campgrounds are packed with people attracted to the scenic wooded hills and rich, rolling plains of northeast Iowa.
A grain truck passes, steering for the elevator near the south end of town. Farther north, a line of massive John Deere tractors and combines is on display outside one of the state's largest farm equipment dealerships.
“Elkader has so much going for it,” says Kathy Josten, owner of Bridge Street Boutique & Gifts, just around the corner from the antiques mall. “Hopefully this is the future of Iowa.”
Attitude not Multitude
What does it take for rural Iowa to succeed?
And there isn't just one story to tell about how communities thrive; there are many. Stories of leadership, vision, and strategic planning. Stories of collaboration and passionate volunteers. Stories of loyalty and advocacy and neighbors who roll up their sleeves and get the work done.
Elkader Thinks Big
According to the 2010 Census, Elkader, the county seat of Clayton County, saw its population dip to 1,273 — in part because of the 2008 flood. But even with fewer people, this small community continues to think, act, and deliver big.
Entrepreneurs, both local and from out of state, have launched new Iowa businesses there, some with financial and planning support from the Elkader Economic Development Corporation (EDC). The EDC revolving loan fund established in 2000 allows individuals with a solid business plan to borrow up to $5,000 for three years at zero interest.
One such success story is Adam Pollock, who moved his family and his business from the San Francisco Bay area to northeast Iowa 10 years ago.
“There's a palpable sense of energy in this town,” says Pollock, who saw many assets in Elkader for his family and for Fire Farm Lighting, his company that creates cutting-edge architectural lighting for domestic and global markets.
Pollock and his wife, Leslie, had both lived in California all their lives, but when they joined Leslie's mother on a visit to an ancestor's Elkader grave, they fell in love with the town. Within months, the Pollocks, Leslie's parents, and a 92-year-old aunt had made Elkader home.
“It's hard to live and manufacture in San Francisco. When everyone else went to China, we went to the heartland,” says Pollock. “People here are steady, reliable, and resourceful. With the Internet, we can do business anywhere.”
Entrepreneurship isn't a new concept for this small town. C.J. Moyna returned to Elkader after WWII, established C.J. Moyna & Sons in 1947, and became a leader in the road building business. C.J.'s grandson John Moyna has continued the family tradition, inventing and investing in the Elkader area.
In the 1990s John Moyna perfected the E-ject System for off-road dump-trucks, an engineering feat that improved both performance and safety and captured the attention of Caterpillar, Inc., which bought several of Moyna's patents. When Moyna's company expanded innovations to earth-moving pull scrapers the following decade, Caterpillar bought the business, becoming a prominent employer in the Elkader industrial park.
Justin Augustyn swept floors for Moyna when he was 14. By the time he was 21, he ran a construction job site.
When he graduated from ISU a year and a half ago with a mechanical engineering degree, Augustyn returned to Elkader to work and live.
Today, at age 24, he's general manager at Moyna's Mobile Track Solutions. “I enjoy the culture here,” says Augustyn. “It's a dream factory. If there's an idea, we can take it to John and he'll probably say go with it.”
Corning and Adams County Think Wide
The population loss experienced in Corning — more than 8 percent, according to the 2010 Census — was not a surprise to Beth Waddle. A business closing had increased the challenge of attracting workers and their families to the area, which is home to a majority of older residents.
In describing the area's assets, Hogan rattles off venues in neighboring counties, such as a barbeque smokehouse in Bedford and a sports bar and restaurant in Malvern, in addition to what she calls Adams County's “Nine Wonders”: Lake Icaria, the Icarian Community Development, the Center for the Arts, a NASCAR track, a new aquatic center, the new Alegent Health Wellness Center, the Kline Museum, the Johnny Carson Birthplace, and the yet-to-be-revitalized opera house.
And then there are the people.“We have 150–200 volunteers we work with regularly — a high percentage, based on our population,” says Waddle. “The volunteers made a difference for us.”
With assistance from the ACEDC, volunteers took over a hardware store that was closing and in its place created the Corning Center for the Arts.
A core group researched the idea, came up with a plan, and kept the project on track. Volunteers picked up materials, including ceiling tiles and lights donated when Mercy Hospital remodeled. Financial support was broad-based, coming from high school alumni and grants from local and regional organizations as well as through donations and discounts provided by local businesses.
“Once an idea gets going, you just can’t let it go,” explains Linda Shearer, a volunteer since 2004. “We wouldn't have been able to do it without volunteers.” Shearer is president of a 13-member volunteer board that works to make Corning a cultural destination.
“In the old building, we had 180 members; now we average 400 members per month (about 10 percent of the county),” reports Gwen Larsen, who manages the center.
Offering a 17th-mile track, Pilates, aerobics classes, cardio machines, and even lunch paid for on the honor system, the center brings in people ranging in age from grade schoolers to those in their upper 80s.
Hogan and Waddle know jobs are really important, too, and Adams County has worked hard to promote reasons for young people to locate there.
After Maria Fuller, D.D.S., graduated from the University of Iowa, she and her husband, David, a respiratory therapist, went looking for the perfect town in which to live and work.
Fairfield Thinks Inclusively
It's midday on a Wednesday, and you may have to circle the town square twice to find a parking spot. Men in business suits and 20-somethings with computers crowd sidewalk tables outside restaurants and coffee shops. Yes, there's the old Gimble's jewelry store. Yes, there's the familiar brick courthouse. But present also are the Ayurvedic cuisine, the aromatherapy, and the Jingui Golden Shield Qi Gong. Fairfield offers an unusual-for-Iowa blend of traditional and new cultures.
You can still drive from one edge to the other in about five minutes; however, Fairfield doesn't feel rural. As in Elkader and Adams County, it's attitude, not population numbers, that drives success.
“We believe that all things are possible through a community working in harmony,” says Ed Malloy, who came to Fairfield from Long Island in 1980 and has been mayor since 2001. “We're fortunate to have a diverse community. We value the resources of our diversity and welcome their participation.”
Broad community participation was what Malloy was after when he initiated a visioning process for the community shortly after he was elected. Malloy brought in the University of Northern Iowa Institute for Decision Making to assist.
Collaboration was critical to making the new Fairfield Arts & Convention Center (FACC) a reality. Fairfield groups had talked for years about the need for a permanent performance space. Community theater productions were staged in the fairgrounds livestock arena. The arts group had lost its studio space when the library moved.
Some in the meditation community wanted the building to adhere strictly to Sthapatya Veda architectural principles. Many fiscally conservative, traditional Fairfield residents were concerned the town would be saddled with a white elephant few would use.
The $10 million facility — built with the financial support of 1,100individuals and companies — includes a 522-seat theater, an art gallery, office space, and meeting rooms that make the site attractive for private music and cultural events as well as for regional conventions.
Staying focused on strategic priorities, says Malloy, positions Fairfield for opportunity. Rustin Lippincott, who moved from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 2007 and is now FACC executive director, applauds the mayor's leadership.
“Ed has created an environment where everyone in Fairfield feels part of the mix for making Fairfield what it is.”
He pauses and decides on a sports analogy: “There are a lot of players in Fairfield, and not many are standing on the sidelines.”