Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Gov. Reynolds sees rural improvements starting quickly from Empower Rural Iowa Initiative

New law targets housing, broadband

Local legislators watch Monday as Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the Empower Rural Iowa Bill into law in front of the Candy Kitchen in Wilton. The law directs money and incentives to encourage workforce housing and internet broadband expansion in rural Iowa. (Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad City Times)
Local legislators watch Monday as Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the Empower Rural Iowa Bill into law in front of the Candy Kitchen in Wilton. The law directs money and incentives to encourage workforce housing and internet broadband expansion in rural Iowa. (Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad City Times)
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WILTON — When she delivers her Condition of the State speech kicking off the Iowa Legislature’s 2020 session, Gov. Kim Reynolds expects to be able to include firm examples of how her Empower Rural Iowa Initiative is helping communities meet the need for broadband, housing and leadership.

By providing $5 million for broadband and $25 million for workforce housing tax credits, Reynolds believes she can give legislators “some tangible examples of how communities have been able to utilize the program,” she said Monday after signing House File 772 in Wilton. The legislation was approved unanimously earlier this year by the Iowa House and Senate.

Although it takes time to build housing, “we can demonstrate how we can get that funding out the door and really start to make a difference in rural Iowa,” she said.

And the state Office of Chief Information Officer is ready to start reviewing applications for $5 million in broadband grants targeted to projects that use partnerships between local, state and federal governments and private entities such as telecommunications companies and rural electric cooperatives.

“I’m hoping that I can go to the Legislature next year with a wait-list of other companies hoping to take advantage of the grants,” said Reynolds, who had asked for $20 million over two years for broadband efforts.

Her office picked the small town of Wilton, north of Muscatine, as the backdrop for her signing the bill into law.

Standing outside Wilton Candy Kitchen, Reynolds said the 109-year-old family-owned business “embodies the small-town character we are famous for and is the perfect example of why we should do everything we can to preserve, grow and strengthen out small-town way of life.”

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“Iowa is speckled with vibrant communities like Wilton, each with its own character and its own story to tell,” she said.

HF 772 will help those communities “harness the power of the internet” so all Iowans have the same opportunities regardless where they live, Reynolds told about 100 people on hand for the signing ceremony.

“Connected communities are fundamental to all aspects of growth and prosperity, and essential to keep our young people and attract others to rural Iowa,” she said.

The legislation also addresses the shortage of workforce housing in small towns and urban areas. Iowa businesses have openings for tens of thousands of employees, “but we can’t fill the jobs if there’s not a place to call home,” she said.

HF 772 doubles the rural set-aside in workforce housing tax credits. Next year, the full $25 million in tax credits will go to clear a backlog in rural housing proposals. It also makes housing tax credits available in those areas that have been declared presidential disaster areas because of this year’s flooding.

HF 772 also calls for a Center for Rural Revitalization in the state Economic Development Authority. Among its goals will be strengthening and developing local leadership.

“There’s a renaissance underway in small towns across our state and it’s fueled by hardworking local leaders who adapt with the times and think differently,” she said.

Bill Menner, who worked with the governor’s Empower Rural Iowa task force, shares her optimism. He called the initiative significant because there had not been many efforts targeted directly at small towns. But he said rural revitalization won’t happen overnight.

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“The fact that she was willing to do it is pretty significant,” said Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council, a partnership of public and private entities and nonprofit associations.

“Planting seeds in small towns is sometimes a lengthy process,” he said. “It takes so long to make these things happen, but I think what you will start to see immediately with these dollars is some projects pop. Whether it’s a housing project in a small town, whether it’s a broadband grant that actually leads to fiber being extended, you will start to see projects happen.”

He also predicted that as the task force headed by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg continues, it may address more issues.

“They may delve into health care or day care or access to capital,” he said. “I think you will start to see a churn of issue development and policy development as well.”

Gregg seemed to agree, telling community leaders that, “We’re not finished. We’re just approaching the starting line with this.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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