Editor’s note: Iowans’ Ideas is a guest column featuring the views of different Iowans in each edition of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas magazine.
Iowa’s rural population has been in decline for more than a century, and many communities struggle to remain vital as a result. Today, only about a third of Iowans are rural residents, though a recent Gallup poll indicates Americans’ top preference for “where to live” is in rural areas.
Twenty-seven percent of respondents want to live in a small town or rural area. Comparing this with where folks currently live — 15 percent rural — tells us there is real interest in rural living and a potential out-migration from urban areas nationwide.
For years, Iowa’s economic development efforts have focused on bringing new employers to town or helping existing businesses grow with the hope the workers will locate in the community. Though a legitimate strategy and enhanced by initiatives that encourage entrepreneurial business development such as the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa, it is slow to grow communities. There is a new focus based on the fact that “place matters” and people often choose where to live and then figure out their employment.
Gov. Kim Reynolds recognized this need to help Iowa’s rural communities with her executive order creating the Empower Rural Iowa initiative. She immediately named the lieutenant governor, Adam Gregg, and me as co-chairs for the effort, then together spent several months interviewing organizations and individuals to find fitting partners.
The non-partisan Iowa Rural Development Council, with its 70 public-private participants, was chosen to work closely with the Governor’s Office. The RDC represents vast technical and financial resources for rural Iowa.
Immediately, a statewide call went out for participants with ideas to help solve Iowa’s rural issues. Three task forces were named to address the most pressing community issues. The Investing Task Force is working on the No. 1 issue, housing.
The Growing Task Force is advising on leadership and strategic planning issues, and the Connecting Task Force is concerned with broadband availability.
Each task force includes 22 members who held Idea Workshops several times last fall to develop proposals for the governor, with an eye toward the recent legislative session.
This round of work culminated with unanimous passage of the Empower Rural Iowa legislation that provides an additional $5 million for Workforce Housing Tax Credits with competitive scoring and a $10 million set aside for rural communities and additional $5 million in the broadband extension to rural areas.
Every task force identified the need for a point of contact for rural communities and the hiring is underway at Iowa Economic Development Authority for a director of Rural Community Revitalization.
• Sandy Ehrig is economic development administrator for the Iowa Farm Bureau.