In Iowa’s small towns, residents and visitors can feel the loss of even just a few businesses.
In Fayette, with a population near 1,400, 10 downtown businesses closed over a short time around 2014.
Mayor Andrew Wenthe said the closures were mostly coincidental, including some resulting from business owners retiring. But he said he believed Fayette officials still needed be active in ensuring the city’s three-block main street area had more to offer than a string of empty storefronts.
“We can’t just wait for new people to come in and start businesses; we need to be more aggressive,” Wenthe said.
To help breathe new life into Fayette, officials renovated 19 building facades several years ago. More recently, in 2018, the city was awarded a $99,000 Rural Business Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development.
Wenthe said the city pitched in $100,000 and used the money to start a revolving loan fund to help get local businesses off the ground.
Under the revolving loan fund, an applicant with a business plan could receive a loan ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, issued by a local citizens board, with interest rates of 1 percent to 5 percent over terms typically lasting five to seven years.
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The fund helps ensure that financing obstacles “do not hinder the creation and expansion of great businesses in Fayette,” according to the city’s website.
In that regard, Wenthe said he believes the loans have been a success. Since 2016, seven new businesses have opened in Fayette, with one business expanding.
Other newer downtown offerings include Shrubb’s Street Eatery, which opened in summer 2018 and sells gourmet flatbreads, and Dollar General, which opened in October.
The city also hopes to lease out a storefront it owns on a month-to-month basis. Wenthe said the opportunity could give prospective entrepreneurs, including students at the city’s Upper Iowa University, a chance to see whether the business world is for them.
Wenthe said the business closures Fayette experienced were not unlike those other small towns face thanks to a shrinking retail environment. The difference, he said, is in Fayette’s willingness to take a few risks.
“Taking chances on these new business owners that aren’t connected to a chain is what makes the community unique and allows people’s unique ideas to take root,” he said. “You do have to be willing to take some risks if you’re a community that wants to create a downtown that has some vitality and isn’t just like everybody else’s downtown. I never would’ve thought five years ago that we could see a yoga studio. ... You have to be open to those types of new ideas even as a small community, even as a rural community.”
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