116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If Iowa had an endangered towns list, Olin would be on it.
The town's high school and junior high will close this summer, sending their students about 15 miles away to Anamosa under a three-year, whole-grade-sharing agreement.
A feed mill operated by the River Valley Co-op pulled out last winter. The main street has at least as many empty storefronts as full ones.
Two of the town's longtime churches are up for sale.
The town of 698 once had a GM dealer, a farm implement dealership and multiple groceries - all long gone.
The interesting aspect of decline in Jones County's oldest town is that it's been about money rather than population.
Olin's population isn't much different than it was 90 years ago. And it shrank by only 2.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 as Iowa's grew 4.1 percent.
Olinites simply didn't spend as much of their money in town, which has fewer places to spend it.
The town had retail “leakage” - the difference between the retail spending that would be expected based on population and actual spending - of $4.5 million in fiscal 2011. Although its population has been around 700, it captures the spending equivalent of a town of 250, according to data from Iowa State University's ReCap program.
Mayor Greg Gerdes has watched much of the noon-hour business at his Greg's Pit Stop pub on the main street dry up since he bought the place 16 years ago. There just aren't many people in town during the day.
“It seems like the small towns are kind of going by the wayside,” Gerdes said. Its residents “live here and they work other places. It's become hard to support.”
Craig Kanneberg, a barber in Olin for 40 years, quietly moved his shop into his home on the outskirts of town after main street retailing died out during the past decade. It keeps the overhead low.
“When I first moved to town, you couldn't find a place to park on main street,” he said.
An accelerating trend
Iowa has dozens of Olins - small, rural towns in which, through no fault of their residents', are losing their schools, their places of worship and their businesses.
The trend is now in danger of accelerating due to funding shortfalls that result in closings and consolidations of public schools and post offices.
The future of rural towns are tied to commuter patterns, according to Iowa State University labor economist Peter Orazem.
Towns that are within a roughly 45-minute drive of a trade center with a population of at least 20,000 tend to hold their own, Orazem said. Working-age adults are willing to endure about that much of a commute because living in a small town is more affordable, or because they like the small-town lifestyle.
Small rural towns outside that 45-minute commute range, however, are fading because of their growing voids in retail and services, including education, Orazem said.
One of Orazem's ISU colleagues, economist Dave Swenson, has studied rural population decline in towns such as Pocahontas and Corning. He said the sad fact about declining rural towns is that so many trends are against them.
As agriculture has become more efficient, requiring fewer workers, the migration of Iowans to larger cities has continued for decades. When people face a locational choice, Swenson said the job location always wins out over emotional choices such as the family hometown.
The last great hope for small rural towns came as the Internet age matured in the mid-1990s, according to University of Iowa sociologist Kevin Licht. The Internet enabled collaboration technologies such as web conferencing and web chat.
Many experts predicted it would lead to a rural revival, Licht said, because professionals who worked with information could now live anywhere they chose.
But those predictions proved inaccurate.
Skilled professionals continued to flock to major cities for the opportunities and rich cultural environments. Employers found that Internet collaboration was no substitute for in-person collaboration.
Olin has done its best to keep business by supporting its school system, maintaining its public infrastructure and re-purposing vacant buildings. The town has pleasant parks, a modern library, a wastewater treatment system and a day care center.
Machine-shop owner and substitute science teacher Roger Kistler heads the town's economic development committee. He said the town fixed up a vacant veterinary office after the owner literally turned the keys over to the city.
Olin Economic Development rents the building out at rock-bottom rates to massage therapists, chiropractors and other businesses who want to hold office hours a few days a month in Olin.
Asked why Iowans should care about fading rural-town economies, Kistler - as with almost everyone Business 380 asked - had to think hard. One reason, he said, is that small towns foster a sense of self-potential.
“If you grow up in a large town, there are things you don't even try to do because you know you can't do it,” he said.
“You don't even think about being on the football team because you know you won't be picked. In a small town, if you even go out for football, you're going to be on the team.”
Among those who've spent time in small towns, Kistler's belief isn't uncommon.
“I agree that small towns foster more sense of opportunity and possibility,” Licht said.
Small towns also score high in what sociologists refer to as “social capital,” the network of social gatherings and personal connections that make life seem richer and fuller, Licht said. It's a plus worth noting, he noted, because of an increasingly widespread belief in his profession that social capital is on the decline nationally.
Licht said small towns also remain less stratified by economic class divisions, and tend to promote a view of interest in the outside world.
“You know everybody - all the movers and shakers” agreed Richard Longworth, the Boone native and author who directs the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The mayor is not a distant figure.”
In Olin, the impending high school and junior high closure are center-stage when discussions turn to the town's prospects. Like Gerdes, the mayor, some believe that losing the high school and junior high could make it harder for Olin to attract and retain young families.
Conversations about the impending high school closing have often come down to chicken-and-egg debates in Kanneberg's barbershop.
“People like to say that if the school goes away, the town will die,” Kanneberg said. “It hasn't made me very popular at times, but I think the town's died, and now the school's going away.”
Swenson, the ISU economist, supported Kanneberg's view.
“By the time the school closes, it's usually too late,” Swenson said. “It's almost always a symptom, not a cause.”
The remaining decisions, Swenson said, typically become choices about managing decline and finding ways to provide for the needs of an aging population.
Longworth of the Chicago Center for Global Affairs studied the fortunes of rural Midwestern towns for his book, “Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism.”
Longworth has seen some creative strategies by small towns. He likes the idea of providing low-cost or no-cost leases of buildings to young high school graduates to get them to start businesses, and was impressed by a Minnesota town that offered world-class distance-learning opportunities to attract families when its regular school closed.
Still, Longworth said, it's a hard uphill battle.
Olin hopes for more entrepreneurs such as Erin LaBarge of Waubeek, who opened a barbecue restaurant, Old Town Eats, this spring after months remodeling a building that looks like it might have been a convenience store.
“We've got a unique thing here with the barbecue and smoked meats,” owner Erin LaBarge said. “We think Olin is a nice size town. It's quiet.”
LaBarge's friend and the restaurant's cook, Jason Smith, is more circumspect. He said Olin's actually too small to make it a first choice for many businesses, but he has hopes the restaurant will become a destination for wayfaring motorcyclists and culinary adventurers.
“There's not a lot of people in town, but there's a lot of people who drive through,” Smith said.
And word of mouth can be a big help in a small town, as it has for Old Town Eats.
“I had an 89-year-old woman who came in here because we had fresh bacon,” Smith said. “There's some positives to a small town mentality.”