Ben Franklin’s 1776 admonition to the Founders is just as applicable today in rural Iowa. “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
The challenges that face rural communities are well-documented. Rural populations are declining and aging. Incomes have been, for the most part, lagging behind urban areas. Rural residents are sicker, with more chronic disease, but have less access to health care.
These are times that require partnerships and a Franklin-esque collaborative spirit.
Earlier this year in a guest editorial on these pages, I identified opportunities for state and federal policymakers to impact the lives of rural residents. They ranged from proposals to address disparities in state funding between urban and rural to a call for more philanthropy and a new focus on rural capacity-building.
At the same time, I identified the need for additional state housing resources and the growing divide in high-speed broadband access between those with fiber and those without. And, I concluded that having a full-time rural advocate in state government might be beneficial.
These are issues that the organization I lead, the Iowa Rural Development Council (IRDC), works to address. The Council has been around for 35 years, but the efforts of its 50+ members the last two years have changed the course of some rural places.
The IRDC was handpicked by Governor Reynolds as a partner in the Empower Rural Iowa initiative. Launched in July by executive order, the Initiative created a task force of self-nominated Iowa residents seeking to improve the vitality of rural areas. About 200 people sought a place at the table — 66 were selected.
Those task forces were separated into three priority areas: Connecting, Growing, and Investing. The “Connecting” team was asked to initially look at broadband solutions. The “Growing” task force was to focus on rural leadership and strategic planning. And, the “Investing” team was told to generate ideas to improve housing access.
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Working with the Governor’s Office, the IRDC and task force members forged ahead, holding six different meetings across the state, fielding hundreds of ideas — with hours and hours of discussion following.
When the entire Empower Rural Iowa task force came together early this month to present the governor with recommendations, it offered her a slate of proposed short-term actions, including the following:
• Creating a state Office of Rural Affairs
• Investing more in the state broadband grants and rural workforce housing tax credits
• Developing a rural web portal with best practices, templates and success stories
• Recognizing small towns that are “empowered”
These actions are just the start, moves that would immediately kick-start Iowa down the path toward addressing the challenges faced by rural areas. But make no mistake that the real solution to the challenges faced by rural Iowa also will need a legislative partnership that commits to providing reasonable resources to this effort, even when budgets are tight and other meritorious programs are competing for those same resources.
Here’s a good example that the discussions generated: Earmark sales tax receipts from online purchases for broadband infrastructure. That would be an especially appropriate use for those revenues since they would not exist without the internet.
There was also a recognition that small towns vary greatly in size, leadership and local capacity. What is easy for one place is a heavy lift in another. So, the committee felt ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions were not appropriate.
To be clear, the work of the past four months is not the end. Task force members were handed narrow targets with the 2019 legislative session in mind. But there are plenty of other issues each of the task forces could take up in the months and years ahead. Venture capital for the “investing” task force, and greenhouse technologies used in other states and countries for “growing.” And the “Connecting” group could should set its sights on new workers, new trade partners and new resources.
Critics may call that “wishful thinking.” But the collaborative juices being generated by 66 Iowans with a passion for rural places and small towns would likely get a nod of approval from Ben Franklin himself.
• Bill Menner runs the Grinnell-based Bill Menner Group and serves as executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council.