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Opportunities for rural Iowa: An uphill battle for mid-sized cities

Feb 24, 2019 at 3:42 pm
    David Swenson Iowa State University

    Iowa is a rural state by most considerations, but it also is a state that is becoming persistently more urban.

    Caught in the middle between Iowa’s most rural areas and its bustling metropolitan cities are Iowa’s regional micropolitan cities, those with populations ranging from just more than 10,000 to about 27,500 in Mason City. Iowa’s micros are significant regional trade, service, employment and entertainment centers serving their respective surrounding regions.

    And most of them have been struggling for the past two decades or longer.

    We currently have 15 micros. On one side of the scale we see Jefferson County (Fairfield) with robust population growth owing primarily to Maharishi International University enrollments. On the other side of the scale are both Clinton County and Lee County (Keokuk and Fort Madison), which both have lost more than 4 percent of their populations this decade.

    Two-thirds of Iowa’s micropolitan counties are contracting, and only two (Jefferson and Dickenson) are growing at or above the statewide rate of growth. Collectively, they are yet to recover to pre-recession employment levels.

    What happened to them?

    It’s important to first understand that these communities mostly have been contracting for decades. They typically were manufacturing centers and, secondarily, agricultural services and transportation hubs. Their economies initially grew — especially in the immediate post World War II years — from expanded manufacturing. Their economic footprints also expanded as the cities added more middle-class jobs, sustained homes, supported area businesses and enjoyed an increased level of public goods.

    But their base economies changed. From the late 1970s on, the number of workers in manufacturing began to decline nationally. Part of that was from automation, some from regional factors, and interstate and international competition also contributed to declines.

    The core earnings base of Iowa’s micropolitan economies slowly but persistently contracted. Fewer people in factories, fewer paychecks and, over time, the losses multiplied through, and other businesses that served those households declined as well.

    There was a partial respite to this following the worst of the farm debt crisis of the 1980s. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, a significant amount of retail and service activity consolidated into these regional trade centers. They increasingly became destinations for employment.

    There also was a resurgence in manufacturing jobs for a time, and several — Burlington, Ottumwa, Mason City and Muscatine, as examples — enjoyed a period of stability and even some minor growth.

    There was a regional downside to this growth and stability interlude, however. The micro cities absorbed much of the commerce and employment that had been more distributed in their respective regions among the smaller outlying communities — their gains came as a result of the broader regions’ declines.

    The past two decades have yielded fewer manufacturing jobs and consistent depopulations of their surrounding regions for most of Iowa’s micros. As their regional populations declined, so has their commercial activity, and when you visit these communities now, you will see significant blight in homes and businesses.

    You also will see a degradation of public goods and service delivery because, as area tax bases suffered, it became harder and harder to fully fund public necessities.

    It is clear to me, given three decades of observation, that Iowa leadership has not done an adequate job of addressing the disparate economic outcomes across the state, and most especially in its micropolitan cities. Beginning in the early 2000s through the present, state programs and policies have provided only spotty guidance and assistance to struggling mid-sized communities.

    Furthermore, state policy has not meaningfully addressed the root economic and social factors undermining mid-sized city resilience.

    There is no formula that will boost the fortunes of our micropolitan places. But state policy that has a strong, central place revitalization focus with resources to match can begin to make a difference for Iowa’s mid-sized cities. These market centers already are geographically and economically important to a surrounding region. Dedicating state resources to assist in their planning, business development and community restoration not only benefits the mid-sized cities, it also benefits those in the surrounding areas depending on them for work, services, necessities and entertainment.

    Stability and resiliency will emerge eventually if Iowa’s micropolitan cities can diversify their economies. As examples, they need to enhance and consolidate business and health care services if they can. They need to better leverage their community college connections to effectively serve the region and to help facilitate community growth. They need to stabilize their deteriorating housing and business stock and eliminate blight. They need good jobs. And they will require much more state resources to do all of the planning and implementation necessary to stop their collective slide and to achieve social, economic and political stability.

    They are not able to do it alone. They need state help. Most of all, they need leadership at the state level.

    • David Swenson is an associate scientist in the Department of Economics at Iowa State University and a lecturer in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

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