Guest Columnist

Rural matters: Small town voters are looking for big ideas in 2018

A monumental-sized American Gothic statue is installed on Main Street in Anamosa on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. The sculpture was made by Hamilton, New Jersey artist Seward Johnson. It most recently spent a year installed in Elkhart, Ind. and will remain in Anamosa through 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A monumental-sized American Gothic statue is installed on Main Street in Anamosa on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. The sculpture was made by Hamilton, New Jersey artist Seward Johnson. It most recently spent a year installed in Elkhart, Ind. and will remain in Anamosa through 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In the 19 months since Election Day 2016, there has been a lot of talk of the future of rural America. That makes sense, since rural voters carried Donald Trump into the White House.

Rural voters are again the focus of candidates running for office. Whether the race is for governor, U.S. House or Iowa Legislature — candidates are focusing their outreach on voters outside of metropolitan areas. For Republicans, those voters have been their base in recent elections. Democrats need to strengthen their showing in rural precincts if they want to improve statewide and districtwide results.

No doubt these candidates, both incumbents and challengers, are visiting rural communities. And no doubt they are getting an earful. But, there have not been many meaningful rural-specific policy initiatives put forward during these months of midterm campaign outreach.

No matter the community, county or region, some consistent issues arise statewide. From housing to high-speed broadband to workforce, rural Iowa is facing issues that limit its ability to grow. In fact, growth would be a dream in those places just trying to maintain what they have.

Congress has a perfect vehicle in place to support small towns. It’s USDA Rural Development, an agency focused on housing, infrastructure, small business and energy. Every member of the Iowa delegation should be an active and steadfast advocate for Rural Development (which has seen its staff shrink and under secretary eliminated, while an Administration plan released this week would dismantle the agency).

So, what could the next governor or Legislature or Congress do to help?

• Fund significantly the existing broadband grant program. Legislators funded it for the first time this year, approving $1.3 million. In fact, the high-speed broadband of the future lies in fiber. But extending it across rural Iowa will cost a lot of money. As rural telephone cooperatives have proved, fiber has tremendous impacts on the people who have it. Extending fiber to places to where it’s not will cost tens of millions. A better-funded state grant program would encourage expansion and leverage millions in private investment.

• Create a state rural housing initiative, with sufficient funding, similar to one passed in Nebraska this year. The $7 million program there provides matching grants to nonprofit development organizations to reduce the cost of workforce housing in Nebraska’s rural communities. Iowa has only limited state resources dedicated to rural workforce housing.

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• Build rural capacity through existing service providers. That means supporting, with sufficient and meaningful funds, state agencies such as the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Economic Development Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which work hand in hand with small-town leaders, business owners and residents. It also means supporting the Regents institutions, community colleges, public-private partnerships, nonprofit organizations and state associations which are already engaged.

• Measure the disparities in project funding between rural and urban places and put in place remedies to address them. Federal and state funding flows easily to urban areas, where elected officials and staff know how to maximize their success. Rural places don’t have that same capacity and are often left behind.

• Expand the Endow Iowa tax credit program. It encourages philanthropic donations to community foundations, which are making dramatic and impactful investments. The program currently uses its $6 million tax-credit allocation quickly, and those funds leverage an additional $24 million. Imagine what would be possible if Endow Iowa were to grow.

Perhaps the biggest thing Iowa could do is to put someone in charge of looking out for its small towns. Certainly, that falls under the authority of the governor or the economic development director or agriculture secretary. But they also have a lot of other issues to confront.

A step as simple as the creation of a Senior Adviser for Rural Affairs, or a more ambitious step like the creation of an Office for Rural Iowa, could provide rural residents with a liaison to state government and an advocate who has no responsibility other than the survival of Iowa’s 900-plus small towns.

There are no easy answers when it comes to solving the problems facing small towns and rural areas, and Iowa is not alone in confronting these challenges. But other states have made a concerted effort to at least attack these rural issues head-on, and it’s time Iowa did the same through some targeted policies and investments.

• Bill Menner of Grinnell is executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

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