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Sizing Up Small Towns: Rethinking Success in Rural Iowa


Sizing Up Small Towns

Rethinking Success in Rural Iowa

Story by Carol Bodensteiner; photography by Jason Fort, John Holtorf, Mark Tade

“Hello! Welcome!”

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.”

Dietzler proceeds to tell them about the 100 antiques vendors they'll find in the 14,000-square-foot, four-story former hotel. When the group heads off to browse, she inks four marks on the paper she keeps on her desk, adding to the running tally she's kept of every visitor to walk through the doors of the antiques mall for the past five and a half years.

As of April 23, 2011, Becky had recorded 91,027 shoppers. Roughly a third were first-time visitors. “Business was good last year,” she reports, “and it's even better this year.”

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?

That's a question Iowans ask every decade when the U.S. Census delivers the message that the state's rural population continues to shrink while urban areas expand. The 2010 Census was no exception, reporting that since 2000, 66 of the state's 99 counties lost population.

Success recognized only by the rise or fall of population paints a bleak picture for rural Iowa. Experts who analyze the topic, however, say population numbers don't tell the whole story.

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.

More studies will be conducted, more books will be written, and the debate will continue. Meanwhile, three small rural Iowa communities are thriving — creating success on their own terms.

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.

Elkader was predominantly an agriculture-based community until the 1980s. That decade's farm crisis propelled city leaders to broaden the community's economic base, expanding tourism and start-up business opportunities.

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.

“We operate on a handshake, and we're flexible,” says Roger Thomas, executive director for both the EDC and Main Street Elkader, a program focused on historic commercial district revitalization. “We want them to succeed.”

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.”

As business has grown, so has tourism. During the tourist season, the town population increases by 50 percent as visitors come for canoeing, fishing, and hiking. And shopping.

Bridge Street Boutique & Gifts owner Kathy Josten says one advantage Elkader has is a collection of stores that are independently owned. The owners don't stock name brands, she explains, and that element of distinction has a market. “Shoppers who visit us want something different. They don't want what they see at the mall.”

The formula is working. “Ninety percent of the people who come to Elkader come to our store,” reports Josten. “It's often so busy you can't park on this street.”

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.

Moyna, an entrepreneur at his core, turned to his next endeavor — Mobile Track Solutions, a company that today builds construction-grade tractors for moving pull-type scrapers. His enterprises continue to transform the market and advance the industry.

“Everybody's an underdog when they start out,” says Moyna. “In Elkader entrepreneurs get a lot of support and encouragement to succeed.”

Recognizing the importance of keeping young talent in town, Moyna not only builds equipment, he also builds people. He nurtures young talent, encourages them to get an education, and hires them back when they have a degree.

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.”

Elkader businesses provide good jobs that attract a host of young professionals like Augustyn. The culture of the town keeps them engaged.

“Elkader has a good amount of culture for its size,” says Augustyn. “The opera house. Schera's Restaurant is fantastic. People go away and then come back, and that contributes to the culture.”

Those jostling for a parking spot in Elkader might note the banners mounted on streetlights, proclaiming the town's mantra: “Life can be this good.”

That confident attitude drives the town's vision for the future. Currently Elkader is angling for a 33-room motel that will substantially increase opportunities to host conferences. A motel? In a town of fewer than 1,300? Thomas says Elkader's boldness can surprise.

“Hotel developers say, ‘You don't act like a small town. You act like a town of 10,000.’”

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.

Corning, population 1,635, is not an island. Though it serves as the county seat for one of Iowa's smallest counties — both in land mass (424 square miles) and population (4,029) — it has taken stock of and leveraged existing assets to drive a broad-based development effort that encompasses the entire county and relies heavily on passionate volunteers.

Casting a wide net makes good economic development sense, says Waddle, director of Adams County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC). “When people choose where they live, they look at all factors — education, housing, culture, recreation.”

“We can't just think about this community alone,” says Donna Hogan, ACEDC president and owner of Corning's Fickle Frog, a gift shop and espresso bar. “The way people travel now, we have to think regionally — anything in a 60-mile radius.”

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.

The arts center continues to be run and staffed largely by volunteers.

“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.

Creating the first artist-in-residence program in Iowa in 2005, the Center for the Arts has been home to 13 artists who live in on-site apartments.
Working with Alegent Health, the largest employer in the county, ACEDC and a host of volunteers repurposed the old Pamida building into a state-of-the-art Wellness Center that opened in 2010.

“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.

“Physical health is really important to people,” explains Waddle. “Health. ACEDC. The community. It's a win, win, win.”

Hogan and Waddle know jobs are really important, too, and Adams County has worked hard to promote reasons for young people to locate there.

“We have a safe, healthy environment. There are many opportunities for those who live here, particularly for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs. We focus on those assets,” explains Waddle, who highlights the new possibilities that have come with technology and the attention given to each newcomer. “We build them one by one.”

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.

A native of Burlington, Fuller had also lived in the Quad Cities and Iowa City. “We wanted to raise our children in a small town,” she explains. “But it was really important that the school provide a solid education. My husband had to get a job. The community needed to provide amenities — a hospital, school, a sense of community.”

Corning delivered everything on their list, says Dr. Fuller, whose parents have also moved to this “progressive little town.” “There are many things here that area surprise. Wednesday at the Wellness Center for younger children, the aquatic center, the Center for the Arts, the movie theater. It works because the community is so supportive.”

Fuller admits to an occasional shopping trip to Des Moines. But as a place to live, raise children, and start a business, Corning has a fan in Maria Fuller.

“If you always had a dream to have your own business, rural Iowa is the place. Take the time to come, visit a while, and see.”

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.

Maharishi University has put Fairfield on many people's maps, but community-wide changes in the last decade have been a force for transformation in this southeast Iowa town of 9,464. Jefferson County's county seat today boasts a diversified business economy that emphasizes entrepreneurship, the arts, and sustainability.

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.”

The new ideas generated by all the new immigrants — from across the United States and around the world — created challenges for traditional Fairfield. Malloy acknowledges that Fairfield was once viewed as a split community. “That image is 85 percent gone,” he says. Getting everyone to the table helped.

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.

“It was critical for us to have outside help,” he says. “An outsider can encourage diversity of opinion and find common ground.”

Planning started in 2002 and took 18 months. Malloy contends the planning process helped the community “grow, develop, mature, and gracefully integrate into a whole,” uniting a community once split.

“We have 80 different community organizations that said, ‘Yes, we understand,' and, ‘Yes, we'll take it on,' ” he says. “Now all sides look at what will benefit all. The lines are much softer and the image of a split community is largely gone.”

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.

“It was time to have a nice space everyone in the community could use,” says Suzan Kessel, a visual artist on the arts association board. So 10 years ago, Kessel joined with another longtime Fairfield resident, Sally Denney of the community theater, in leading a community-wide visioning process to turn talk into reality.

A board of 12 reached out to the chamber, hospital, schools, businesses, and the meditation community to get input. “We had a very well-balanced board from the beginning,” says Kessel, ensuring all voices were heard.

The process was not without conflict, however.

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 nucleus was patient,” says Denney. “We worked together because we had a common goal.”

Today's FACC is more than either Kessel or Denney imagined, both in terms of space and the way that space represents the community.

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.

Acts that take the Center's stage range from local dance recitals to mixed martial arts, comedy, Way Off Broadway (Iowa's only professional music theater company), and professional touring companies. Other parts of the facility are busy with class reunions, wedding receptions, and business meetings.

“Fairfield is a diverse community, and the Center is where you really see the community mix,” says Denney. “This whole project has been a boon for Fairfield. Any conflicts have been far outweighed by the good. The Center brings us together.”

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.”

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