A few weeks ago, a friend who knows I have traveled rural Iowa extensively asked if I had any recommendations in Ely. She was headed there.
“You’ve got to go to Dan & Debbie’s Creamery!” I exclaimed. “They’ve got amazing ice cream and freshly-made cheese curds!”
In fact, that’s exactly where the friend was headed. Dan & Debbie’s was awarded the Iowa Farm Bureau’s “Renew Rural Iowa Leader Award” for its transformation of a former lumberyard into a destination business. Even better, it’s located adjacent to the Hoover Trail that runs from Cedar Rapids to Ely.
All over rural Iowa, there are stories of innovative businesses, forward-thinking towns and visionary leaders who are reshaping their communities. I had a chance to see many of them during my tenure as USDA Rural Development’s state director from 2009-2017. And I heard about even more during The Gazette’s two-day Iowa Ideas Conference.
But those stories contradict the conventional wisdom: rural Iowa is aging, rural Iowa is poor, rural Iowa is obsolete.
I would argue that rural Iowa is a destination for anyone who wants affordable housing, good schools and excellent quality-of-life. That’s not to disparage big cities and urban areas. But it’s different when you live in a small town like I do.
That’s not to say there are not challenges. A lack of population makes it more expensive per person to build things like schools, health care facilities, wastewater systems and broadband networks. Small businesses work to succeed with a smaller customer base. And there may not be the same amenities that residents of a city enjoy, like a Starbucks on every corner.
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For a number of years now, the Iowa Rural Development Council has sought to help small towns and rural areas address those issues. The council is an informal partnership of federal and state agencies, utilities, Regents institutions and agriculture associations. And in light of the challenges and opportunities, it’s planning to boost its visibility.
Last November, the council hosted the first-ever Iowa Rural Summit. More than 300 people from 70 communities came to Jefferson to talk about everything from housing to entrepreneurship to leadership development. The daylong session featured rural strategies, innovative best-practices and templates for local action. The evaluations signaled a desire for more.
The council decided to build on that momentum. It organized a bus trip this summer for members, highlighting innovative housing policies in State Center, Marshalltown, Grinnell and Newton. And it began planning the second rural summit, set for April 5-6, in Grinnell.
This month, the Iowa Rural Development Council approved a plan to formalize even further the relationship between the traditional partners and open the door to others. The council will start accepting sponsorships from members and other rural advocates, develop programming that addresses rural issues, inspires small towns and rural places to take action, and assists them in those efforts.
The Iowa Ideas Conference is underscoring an appetite for discussions across the state on issues like economic development, agriculture, health care and transportation. But for rural communities, and Iowa as a whole, to benefit, those discussions have to lead to action. And the partners of the Iowa Rural Development Council are expanding the role of the group to help make that happen.
Communities in non-metro areas with populations less than 20,000 can participate. They can put together a three-person team to attend the rural summit and see what other towns are doing and how they are doing it. It takes just a spark!
For more information on the 2018 Iowa Rural Summit or to see how your community can participate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Bill Menner is owner of The Bill Menner Group, Grinnell