STANTON — Small, rural communities in Iowa have faced challenges for decades as the urban shift has sapped financial resources, people and energy.
That’s what is remarkable about Stanton. The southwest Iowa community known for its Swedish roots has fewer than 700 people, yet has seen $39 million in investments in the past 10 years, with more on the way. It has the community primed to — if not grow — at least hold on to what it has.
“Stanton is unusual,” said Carroll Peterson, who runs the Swedish Heritage and Cultural Center and is president of the Stanton Historical Society. “You might say Stanton still is in its heyday. It is not receding. The city is as big as it has ever been.”
Stanton has had between 600 and 800 people since 1980, some years up a little, other years down.
Situated within 30 minutes of Red Oak, Clarinda and Shenandoah, and an hour from Omaha, Neb., Stanton is seen as a bedroom community in Montgomery County, which has a declining population of about 10,000 people.
“Everybody leaves in the morning and comes back at night,” said Mickey Anderson, who owns a Chrysler dealership in Red Oak and is president of the Stanton Area Industrial Foundation, a volunteer group that works for the betterment of Stanton through investing in property.
The median age of city residents is 55. While Stanton lost its grocery store and hardware store years ago, locals say younger people have started to move back, thanks to a slate of amenities other communities of this size only dream of — a K-12 school system in town, a new community center, a five-star day care and the paved Greenbelt Trail system. If Stanton hopes for that to continue, local leaders acknowledge there’s more work to do, particularly creating more places for people to live.
“These communities have an opportunity to grow because of urban sprawl,” said Kevin Cabbage, general manager of the Stanton-based Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. and a member of Gov. Kim Reynold’s Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force. “That’s the opportunity we have in these rural communities. Without housing, you may not have a second chance to show off your town.”
Stanton is a quiet town but not exactly sleepy. The sound of power saws rings from the several active construction sites around town. Locals pack the Cast Iron Cafe over lunch, a mom pushes a stroller on the Greenbelt Trail and a steady stream of cars flow through the Casey’s General Store parking lot.
Morgan Lewellen, a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, and her husband, Cameron Lewellen, a UPS driver, are a young couple who set down roots in Stanton two years ago. Cameron had grown up here, and Morgan grew up in Red Oak.
They are investing $70,000 to gut and remodel the family’s old meat locker to open a photography studio on Broad Avenue, which locals refer to as main street. Cameron’s family owned the building, which was built in 1916 and sat vacant for four years, and gave it to him. Rather than let it deteriorate to the point of no return, they decided to do something with it, Cameron said.
The couple has saved money by doing some of the work themselves and with the help of the community.
“There’s been so much community support,” Morgan said. “People offer to help all the time, and we don’t even ask.”
Anderson and the Industrial Foundation and Cabbage and Farmers Mutual have been at the forefront of much of the forward thinking in Stanton. They’ve led in terms of convening stakeholders and joining conversations, such as a Creative Placemaking effort to help make the community more attractive and plan for the future. They’ve also led in terms of investing and action.
Cabbage described it as a case of the best defense for protecting what Stanton has is a good offense.
Farmers Mutual Telephone installed $20 million worth of fiber in its coverage area, which extends beyond Stanton, 40 percent of which could be recovered through the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Services Fund designed to get more internet options into rural America. Each user has up to 1 gigabit service as a dedicated — not shared — connection, Cabbage said.
This has boosted work-from-home opportunities. In addition, Farmers Mutual Telephone, which has a headquarters and technology center on Broad Avenue, is investing $250,000 to update its facilities and could add three to five new positions.
Farmers Mutual Telephone also worked with city leaders to create a new community development director position to help carry out pro-development initiatives. Farmers Mutual Telephone and the city are splitting the salary for Jenna Ramsey’s part time position.
One of the outcomes of the Creative Placemaking effort was finding an event space in the downtown where people could gather for festivities.
“I was driving around and thought, we got one here in the center of town,” said Tim Johnson, a farmer and a steering committee member for the Creative Placemaking effort.
Farmers Mutual Telephone had acquired an old lumberyard in 1988, put white metal sheeting on the outside to protect it and had used it for storage until finding a new location. The building had blended into the background over the years, and many people hadn’t seen the inside in years. Last fall, volunteers cleaned it out.
They strung lights overhead inside, cleaned the floors and walls, set up a heating element and suddenly they had a rustic-looking space for dances, reunions, anniversaries, New Year’s Eve parties and other events. Three weddings are among the reservations for this summer.
“It’s not so nice you are afraid to get dirty, but not so dirty you wouldn’t do something nice here,” the phone company’s Cabbage said.
Bethany Wilcoxon is a senior adviser for McClure, a Clive-based engineering, surveying and planning company that works with communities around the Midwest on identity building. She has served as the liaison for the Creative Placemaking process, which began in late 2017.
“In every single community, leadership is what it comes down to,” Wilcoxon said. “In Stanton, that is very present — not just city leadership, not just business leadership, but a combination, and they partner with the county and state.”
Leadership, citizen engagement and layering of grants and other financial incentives are a few of the elements Stanton has leaned on to be successful, she said.
The initial place-making meeting drew a quarter of the town — 175 people — and that helped set the tone for the effort, she said.
The city has spent $1.6 million to upgrade the water mains and plans soon to upgrade the sewer system. While Stanton community alumni raised $90,000 to refurbish an iconic Swedish coffeepot water tower, the city paid to move it from a rusted base to a ground-level display in front of the Swedish Cultural Center.
Last month, Stanton City Council members entertained the first discussion of using tax increment financing as a tool to pay for needed development, such as housing. The financing tool is seen by some as controversial because it exempts revenue from the tax rolls for a period of time. But proponents say projects, such as infrastructure, would not happen but for the tax breaks. City council member Ray Guffey said he is open to the idea and thinks it could help Stanton grow.
The state has put money into overlaying Highway 34 and adding improvements at nearby Viking Lake State Park.
The Stanton Area Industrial Foundation, a private group that works for the betterment of the Stanton through donations, grants and private investment, has led an effort to rehabilitate shabby houses and acquire unused or underused infill property to rebuild.
The foundation has been a key player in the construction of 14 new homes in the Stanton school district in the past two years, and 140 new homes over the past 30 years. Other communities of this size may not see more than a handful of new homes built over that time frame, McClure’s Wilcoxson said.
The foundation has acquired and is rehabbing an old downtown property called the Mason Building to include an upscale apartment on the second floor, two commercial spaces on the ground floor and a new facade. At least four commercial buildings on Broad Avenue sit empty.
“The thinking was, ‘If we can do two or three of these types of projects, it will catch on, and we can see some more improvements downtown,’” said Anderson with the foundation.
Amy Sallach, owner of the Hair Company, moved to a temporary space as part of the Mason Building renovation. She wanted to stay in Stanton where the salon has operated for more than 20 years. Her clients come from as far as Omaha and Des Moines, she said.
“It’s exciting and stressful and exciting all at once,” she said of the remodel.
A private-public partnership led to the Viking Center, a community hub that houses the Stanton Public Library, a weight room, a basketball court, track, meeting space and Good Shephard Preschool. The $3.2 million facility, which opened in 2014, received $450,000 in local fundraising and numerous grants including $682,598 from the Vision Iowa Board, $360,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $55,254 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
NBC News picked up a video of the library move, in which a 400-person human chain assembled to move books from the old library on the main street a few blocks away to the new one next to the school. City Hall now occupies the old library space.
Families such as the Gettlers point to the proximity of the Viking Center and Greenbelt Trail and to the quality of the school system and day care as difference makers that keep them in the community.
The Gettlers — Caleb, 34, and Jenny, 31 — built a new home after someone made an unsolicited offer to buy their last one. Nice homes rarely make it onto the market. More often they sell through word-of-mouth, they said.
They can drop their children at the Stanton Childhood Resource Center in the morning, then go to work, and the day care buses the children back and forth to school. After school, the kids can walk to the Viking Center to play with their friends. At Stanton’s K-12 school, their children — Evan, 12, Addy, 9, and Owen, 6 — are in grades with 27, 12, and 17 students, respectively.
“That’s a bonus,” Jenny Gettler said. “I would never be able to get off at noon to pick the kids up.”
Kevin Blunt is principal of the Stanton schools, one of the state’s smaller districts. Each grade has just shy of 20 kids, on average, and this year’s graduating class has 16 seniors. Its enrollment has averaged between 235 and 240 children for years, he said.
Blunt graduated from Stanton in 1982, left and came back in 2012. But as with many new staffers, he investigated the likelihood of Stanton being swallowed up as the state attempts to create efficiencies by consolidating smaller districts.
Stanton has been targeted over the years, although not recently. The district, like the town, has fortified itself by maintaining steady enrollment, performing well academically, and keeping facilities in good condition and compliant with state and federal regulations. Having a strong day care has helped bolster the student body, which includes 25 percent open enrollment from other districts, Blunt said.
“That’s made all the difference for Stanton being Stanton for the last 25 years,” he said.
Stacy Kutzli, a board member for the Stanton Childhood Resource Center and chairwoman of the Stanton 150 Committee, said a $3.5 million renovation to the day care is the top priority heading into the community’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2020.
Expanding the Greenbelt Trail from 1.8 miles to a 3.8-mile loop around the city and a downtown beautification effort are the next tier of the goal list, she said.
Rural communities struggle with day care, so the Resource Center is one of the top draws here. Only 35 percent of the children are from Stanton. Parents bring children from Mills and Page counties, and many of the children wind up open-enrolling into the Stanton school district.
The day care has 115 children aged 6 weeks to 12 years. The expansion would double its size from four classes to eight and from a license for 80 kids to 162.
“Classrooms are at capacity on a daily basis,” Kutzli said. “We have a waiting list of 62 children and we are one of only two day care centers in the county. We could fill the expansion almost already.”
Kutzli said they are targeting $500,000 to $750,000 in fundraising for the expansion and anticipate applying for several grants, such as from the Iowa West Foundation and the state’s Community Attraction and Tourism Committee grant.
“When your community has high expectations, you find a way to get things done,” said Anderson, of the Stanton Area Industrial Foundation. “Working together with residents, businesses, nonprofits and city government is the key to success.”
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