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The hometown: St. Ansgar residents rally to preserve quality of life

Tiny Mitchell County community lures new residents

    Katie DeMaris talks with customers at the hardware store she owns with her husband, Tyler, in St. Ansgar on Thursday, May 11, 2017. The Demaris' left their upwardly mobile jobs near the Quad Cities to be closer to family as they raise their three kids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
    Regionalism / Workforce
    Feb 13, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    ST. ANSGAR — By their early 30s, Tyler and Katie DeMaris had the lifestyle many Iowans that age work toward — three kids, a home in an upscale neighborhood near a metro area and promising careers at one of Iowa’s signature employers.

    But last fall, they hit a crossroads with their lives in Le Claire — just outside the Quad Cities — their work at John Deere in Davenport and their time for the children.

    “We were out to eat for our anniversary, and we said, ‘What are we doing?’ ” recalled Katie, 33. “We had everything you’d want in life, but we were paying a baby sitter and every day was just a race to get home first to take care of the kids.”

    “We were constantly working, and if we climbed higher, we’d just get busier,” added Tyler, 31. “We were super busy at work, super busy at home, and with a two-, three- and five-year-old, it wasn’t going to get any easier.

     

    “We knew something had to give.”

    They missed having family nearby, and Deere had been cutting jobs.

    A few years earlier the hardware store in Tyler’s hometown of St. Ansgar, a farming town of 1,156 people near the Minnesota border, in the plains of central Iowa, was put up for sale. The DeMarises were interested, but the timing was off.

    They’d never owned a business, but they were handy, and each had master’s in business administration degrees. Last fall when John Deere offered a separation agreement, they crunched the numbers and suddenly the timing made sense.

    Surprising everyone, including their bosses, family and friends, they quit their near six-figure jobs, sold their hillside home overlooking the Mississippi River and moved from one of Iowa’s growing areas to a county that’s been shrinking since the 1960s to buy a hardware store.

    Oatmeal Days

    St. Ansgar, founded by Norwegian immigrant farmers in 1853 and named for the patron saint of Scandinavia, is located along Highway 218 and the Cedar River. Population centers of Mason City to the south and Austin, Minn., to the north — each with about 25,000 people — are a half-hour’s drive away, as are major thoroughfares Interstate 35 and 90.

     

    Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Twin Cities are each about a two-hour drive away.

    The town is known for its annual Oatmeal Days, which is a nod to the local oat processor and largest employer, Grain Millers. The albino deer that pranced around the woods for nearly a decade in the 1980s now stands stuffed on display in the town center. A 2014 Iowa State University survey of small town life found 53 percent of St. Ansgar residents could name at least half the people in town.

    That quality of life — the connectedness — appealed to the DeMarises, who’ve settled in, with Katie finding a local yoga group and Tyler a spin class, and friends who enjoy a beer and a fire along the Cedar River.

    Demographically, St. Ansgar bears similarities to many struggling places in rural America.

    Source: Woods and Poole Economics Inc 2015

    Read more: Iowa's changing demographics >

    It’s older and aging more than Iowa as a whole. The median age rose from 42 in 2010 to 47 in 2015, which is 9 years older than the state median. School district enrollment — an indicator of the future — has decreased by 5 percent in the past five years, from 665 students to 630. It is projected to decrease 12 percent over the next five years, to 557 by the 2021-22 school year.

    Its home county, Mitchell, with 10,779 people, is one of Iowa’s smallest counties and among 73 that have lost population since 1980.

    An Iowa State University decennial study — in 1994, 2004 and 2014 — on life in small towns found St. Ansgar “is unique” in that the majority stayed local for health care, church and shopping for daily needs — yet over the years, even those sectors saw significant declines. Residents had all but given up on buying big-ticket items locally, according to the study, which was based on a random survey of townspeople.

    Some positive signs exist, too.

    The DeMarises are among a wave of younger adults moving back. The proportion of people aged 20 to 34 increased from 8.8 percent to 15.8 percent from 2006-10 to 2011-15, according to U.S. Census Bureau five-year community surveys.

    The population that declined by 20 percent in the 2000s — from about 1,220 in 1999 to 959 in 2007 — has rebounded 20 percent over the past 10 years.

     
     

    Perhaps most revealing is a drive through the town with its one flashing traffic light. St. Ansgar has withstood the creep of rundown homes and boarded-up businesses plaguing many rural towns. Critical establishments have survived competition from online and chain stores in larger communities, including a grocery store, a pharmacy, a medical center, a few restaurants and bars, and other assorted shops and services — largely because the community supports them, locals said.

    “People take a lot of pride here,” said Lynn Baldus, who taught in the St. Ansgar school district years ago, left for another district and returned in 2013 as middle and high school principal. “Even if you look at people’s yards, people keep their yards mowed. That’s the thing that always strikes me when I go to other small towns. People keep things up well here.”

    On their last day of school, seniors Brady Bruce, 18, and Claire Groth, 18, sat in the school library leafing through contents of a time capsule they created years earlier. Later, just before the final bell, the school band marched through the halls trumpeting the fight song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

     

    They’ve enjoyed their experience and don’t see St. Ansgar as a place they are rushing to leave.

    Bruce is among nearly half the 48-student class of 2017 staying within 30 minutes after graduation. Nineteen plan to attend North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. Another four plan to attend Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., according to a graduation publication.

    Even Groth, who is leaving for Iowa State University, hopes to return someday.

    “Eventually I’d like to have my kids grow up here, but we’ll see,” said Groth, who helps grow corn and soybeans and raise hogs on her family’s farm outside of town.

    Residents have rallied to preserve quality of life through creative ideas and entrepreneurialism, locals said. Kathy Falk, 81, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said millennials are civically active, joining the town council and school board and leading an initiative to save an old elementary school from demolition.

     

    The St. Ansgar Historic School Project is turning the early 1900s elementary building into a community space. One old classroom has been converted to an artist studio, another to a bike repair shop and another for a gallery. The chamber hosted its first plant swap in the old gym this spring, and this summer 20-some college students will live and rehearse there as participants in the Cedar Summerstock Theater.

    “We have a core group of young people who are getting involved and taking ownership in this community,” Falk said. “That’s what it takes.”

    The St. Ansgar Economic Development Corp., which is made up of local business people, partnered with the city and a private landowner a decade ago to spur a new housing development, called Seasons. They worked with utility companies to run water and sewer lines to the area on the east edge of town, and served as the middle man for homebuyers to buy a lot for $10,000, find a builder and erect a new homes. Ten years later, the development has 40 homes.

    Ivan Wold, of Wold Rim and Wheel and vice president of St. Ansgar Economic Development, during the annual chamber meeting in April, credited Seasons for its positive role in the city’s minuscule unemployment rate of 2.1 percent and upward population trend.

    “That is a perfect example of a community that has mobilized local support and have leaders who are moving the community in a forward direction,” said Bill Menner, an Iowa-based consultant specializing in rural development initiatives, community-based infrastructure, housing and health care. “Sometimes you have communities that don’t recognize the challenges or don’t have leadership to do anything about it.”

    What people want

    A few years ago, the owner of the town pharmacy was retiring and rather than let it close, a dozen or so residents purchased the pharmacy and recruited a new pharmacist.

    In another case, residents and the business leaders raised half the cost of an upgrade to the town’s medical clinic.

    “We’ve been very fortunate to see young people moving back, but we know if we don’t have these things people want, they aren’t going to want to stay,” said Tanner Hansen, 30, a vice president of St. Ansgar State Bank and treasurer for the economic development group. He was raised in St. Ansgar, left and returned. “It’s always a struggle to have small town retail, so people try to support things in town. They know you have to if you want to have things here.”

     

    A few other factors have helped.

    Grain Millers, an oat processor that sells to Post among other brands and employs 150 people, has invested millions of dollars on multiple expansions over the years, and opted to rebuild in St. Ansgar rather than leave after a fire in the 1980s, according to news reports.

    Also, the sprawling school district encompassing 13 towns is based in St. Ansgar. The district recently built a new elementary, high school gymnasium and track, which has been attractive to families. The district also provides jobs.

    Charles Fluharty, founder and president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, said St. Ansgar easily could be a town on the decline, but key local institutions are working together, millennials are engaged and many quality-of-life amenities remain intact, which are hallmarks of rural towns finding success.

    Deteriorating housing stock can be a community’s death knell because it can drag down what’s around it, erode the tax base, and lenders are hesitant to loan money. That’s why he applauded the Seasons project because not only did it attract new blood, but it can help energize property values.

    “When small towns think about how to envision the future, it’s not just recruiting back people in their 20s and 30s but identifying things people are going to want in the community,” he said.

    For the DeMarises, having family nearby and believing the town would support their business helped close the deal.

    Tyler left St. Ansgar 13 years ago, seemingly for good. He earned a football scholarship to Morningside College in Sioux City, where he met Katie, who played soccer. After school, they took jobs at John Deere in Des Moines and relocated in 2014 to Deere’s Davenport Works plant.

     

    The opportunities Tyler found after leaving his hometown inspired confidence they would not stifle their children’s potential in St. Ansgar.

    The DeMarises lived in the basement of what would become DeMaris Hardware, on West Fourth Street, the town’s main street, from January to May while remodeling the business and restoring their new home, the 1914-built Koch House, a local historic landmark. They became not only first-time business owners but also the store’s only two employees when they reopened in April.

    “He’s really expanded it,” said Paul Groth, 78, a lifelong resident of St. Ansgar who attended school with Tyler’s grandfather, Wayne. “He’s really making a go of it.”

    Added Norm Kittleson, 82, standing beside Groth outside the hardware shop, “We shop in the stores we have here whenever we can. You can get anything here as you would at Wal-Mart.”

     

    Within a few weeks, the DeMarises greet customers by name, walk them down the aisle to their item or flip through laminated sheets at the front counter to pick out the right water softener salt — one of the top sellers. Their reddish colored mutt, Gracie, lays by the paint display, and the kids are on hand before and after school and day care.

    The new owners were the talk of the town, appearing three times in the St. Ansgar Enterprise Journal. Shoppers compliment their well-stocked shelves and array of products, a marked improvement from the previous incarnation of the store, they said.

    The DeMarises said their representative from True Value said they had one of the strongest opening weekends he’d seen.

    “I am not sure if it’s because of the hardware store, because we are fixing up the Koch House or because we are bringing new kids to the school district,” Tyler joked. “The support has been great.”

    Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com


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