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Rural Development in Iowa (Discussion)

posted on April 11, 2008 at 1:58 PM

Nearly half the counties in Iowa experience more deaths than births. The median age in many of the state's rural counties is over 40. As the younger generation moves out of rural Iowa, data suggests that they will eventually take the family wealth with them in the form of inheritances when the older generations die.

If you can't "keep 'em down on the farm," can you at least keep some of the family money in the community? That's what many rural communities and counties are trying to do by creating community foundations. And in Iowa, they are establishing the foundations with the help of state gambling tax revenues.

Rand Fisher, President, Iowa Area Development Group and Kathy Evert, President, Iowa Lakes Corridor, discuss how and why rural Iowa counties are setting up community foundations.

Yeager: With out-migration from small towns and a nationwide economic downturn, can philanthropy solve the economic ills facing rural America? Here are some of the questions we'll seek to answer tonight. Is it possible to keep the next generation interested in preserving and growing their hometown? What does a rural community need to do to be an attractive site for a business location? And are state economic development incentives and an adequate highway or railroad network enough to recruit new business and industry to a rural community? Or must a town offer more in the way of quality of life choices such as bike trails or local theatre or other leisure activities? With us to address these matters are Rand Fisher, President of the Iowa Area Development Group and Kathy Evert, President of the Iowa Lakes Corridor in Spencer. To the two of you, welcome. We'll start with the piece we just saw. We looked at a foundation in the Greene area. Is that on the right direction? Are we headed in the right direction, I'll start with you, Rand, in preserving and growing a hometown?

Fisher: I think so. Our organization, the Iowa Area Development Group recognizes that business development and community development literally go hand in hand. And if we can't be creating an attractive quality of life in our rural communities today we have little chance of retaining and recruiting the workforce and the population that we need for the next generation.

Yeager: It's almost a chicken and egg argument, though, in some points. If you don't have something how do you attract something or get people to come to your area?

Fisher: And this is what I think compliments to the citizens of Greene County and the 84 other community foundations for stepping forward and recognizing this link between retaining wealth, attracting that wealth from ex-patriots, folks that have frankly already left our state but also harnessing the opportunity of those people who are looking at, you know, a pretty good income today and some wealth accumulation and as we transfer the assets of agriculture and small business, how we harness that to build higher quality communities for the future.

Yeager: You talk about communities, Kathy, with your area it's a high recreation area to your north there with the Okoboji and Spirit Lake area. Is that something that can help specifically your region attract a younger person and a younger family to come and work and stay in that area?

Evert: Absolutely, there's a lot of work going on in the Okoboji, Storm Lake area, throughout that whole region in making it a better quality place, a lot of trail development, beautification projects. We just did a series of meetings around the region last week and talked about all of the beautification and improvement projects going on. So, there is a high emphasis on making sure the place looks good, feels good, is a welcoming place when you enter the community.

Yeager: And you had said a word about harnessing, it made me think of wind, and wind is very big at Iowa Lakes Community College up in your area. Is that the type of industry that you're attracting? Are there certain types of industries that you're trying to bring? Or is it we need some jobs, we're going to whatever those jobs are? What is the balance that you have to strike?

Evert: I would say from our organization's standpoint jobs is where we focus and we want to focus and are focusing on primary jobs, wind energy manufacturing, any of the service related spin-offs that are related to the wind industry are certainly a target for us because there are 1000 or more wind turbines within 100 miles radius of that region. Entrepreneurship is a high focus and there is a direct relationship between entrepreneurship and philanthropy in a community, we believe. And so helping people start jobs, helping people in younger ages think about being their own boss is a high priority and creating jobs is another key part of this.

Yeager: We're much more of an individualized world, we'd like to be our own support. How does a community -- if I give to my rural area or the area that I'm a part of does that make me feel like I have more of an investment there?

Fisher: Well, I think so. I think one of the things that community based philanthropy and foundations harness, if we will again, is community values, values of local control and local determination. And one of the exciting things about these community foundations is it is locally based and locally controlled philanthropy and so it's exciting that these are folks that will have the opportunity to step forward and fund their dreams, if you will. So, I'm excited as these community foundations really begin to manifest themselves, how they will look more strategically and how they will become more proactive in their grant making.

Yeager: Do you mean they're not so much like a welfare type thing where they're just handing out money and not putting a strong emphasis or a community ... ?

Fisher: Yeah, I think there's been a natural evolution as these community foundations have been founded and there has been a suggestion and an idea that they really kind of needed to share the wealth and many of them have become absorbed in very good application taking and application evaluation. The next thing will be as their community foundations mature is, as I say, to look a little bit more strategically at what can grow their communities and what can grow philanthropy in their communities.

Yeager: It looks like you want to respond to that. Go ahead.

Evert: Well, I think they are working on and understanding the leadership role they can play in the communities. So, they are being involved in strategic planning, visioning and looking at all the projects that are coming before them for funding and making strategic decisions about where they are investing those dollars.

Yeager: There was a mention before we set up the piece talking that there were 76 counties in Iowa that have lost population from 2000 to 2007. How do regions take what we're talking about and try to turn that into the area? One of the reference points was western Iowa that had seen it. You're close to it, not quite there. But how does that region take it when they see news like that?

Evert: It's frustrating, particularly when you're working so hard every day in any capacity, not just in the role that I serve because you believe you have a great place to live and work and play and some people want to challenge and think well in 2010 the census will be different because they're just estimates right now. And I think many of us are taking more of a proactive approach and bellying up to the plate a little bit more about you've got to take charge of this and do everything we can to retain the people that are already there and be obsessive about trying to attract more people to the region.

Yeager: Kathy, exactly how do we do those things that you're talking about?

Evert: Well, I think it's talking to those younger people and finding out what is important to them. And what they tell us is they want more shopping, more dining opportunities, more cool and fun things to do. They want better paying jobs. YMCA's, fitness centers, coffee shops, live music. They want a fun, active scene. They want to be active in it, they don't want to be spectators kinds of things, bike trails.

Yeager: Are these some of the same talking points that have been going on for a long time about recruiting or is this a new thing in the last 10 years?

Fisher: Well, I think one of the things that our organization recognizes increasingly is that we're not only trying to retain and recruit and grow existing businesses and industries, we're trying to recruit and retain a workforce. And so these things that Kathy is mentioning if I had to look at the challenge for rural development today it's workforce, workforce, workforce, attracting the kind of talent that we need to lead our organizations forward in the 21st century. And so these things that we're talking about today and the role of the community foundations, I think, are really increasingly important in bringing together the quality of life amenities that will make our rural communities attractive as a place to live and to invest and to just have fun and raise a family.

Yeager: And you talk about the workforce issue. It's not just the workers but it's also the management and owners. There's plenty of owners and small business in this state that are close to retirement. That seems to me like an opportunity.

Fisher: Well, if you want some numbers actually we are a state of small businesses and farms fit into that notion of small business. But one in three small business owners today is over the age of 55. So, in rural America particularly today the notion of succession management and how we not only transfer wealth but how we transfer businesses and industries from one generation to the next is going to be equally important in kind of retaining the quality of life we want and need.

Yeager: It could also, though, if we don't have the workers for that what is the landscape going to look like? How do you change -- I think you had talked about it earlier, Kathy, was that a lot of people want to be their own boss or employer. Are we just going to see a different change in the business?

Evert: I think a lot of people want to be -- I think we've got to do more to help people understand that they can be and do a much better job of helping them create those opportunities. We had over 200 high school students together in the Event Center yesterday just talking to them about being your own boss and giving them examples of other that were young in college or high school that started their own business and also that there is going to be this huge transition of business owners and so if they didn't have an idea that they wanted to pick up and run with on their own there were plenty of opportunities to jump in with an existing small business and someday own that company in the not too distant future. So, entrepreneurship is really a key effort in our economic development efforts and we think it's our best chance for success in rural Iowa.

Yeager: Well, where did that idea come from? How did you get to that point to say -- it sounds like you're doing your best to promote your own area but you're also trying to keep everybody encouraged, as you said the entrepreneurs.

Evert: We're fortunate because there is this diverse group of locally owned small businesses that are now, in some cases, very large companies, Pure Fishing, for example. That was started by Berkeley Badale and then grown by his son, Tom. Shine Brothers, Tekton Industries, Metal Works, there is a very diverse group, it's something I noticed right away in moving to that area a few years ago, that's not common in other parts or all parts of Iowa or the Midwest. And so they said that this is an area we should focus on, they got together and started the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute that is bringing in college students from around the state and showing them the area, showing them the people in the state that care about them and want to help them and encourage them to become business owners someday.

Fisher: I think for people like Kathy and I economic development was probably more of a hunting trip a generation ago and now it might be described much more as gardening, growing our own and raising up the kind of talent and the kind of investment opportunities that are already present in our community. So, I think leveraging that asset, I mean, farmers in particular were once among the most innovative and capital intensive and certainly not adverse to risk and we've got to nurture that back up in our rural communities.

Yeager: You talk about regional -- you really struck a lot of regional things. Is that, Rand, what you think is the direction that maybe the rest of the state could take a cue from whether you're in Blackhawk County, you see Waterloo driving it, Buchanan, Bremer, they kind of need to follow along?

Fisher: Absolutely and to Kathy's credit and to the organization of the corridor of opportunity my compliments to them. I think they're really leading the state forward with this concept of regionalism. You know, we always thought we were competing and now I think we recognize that through collaboration and such that we can achieve a whole lot more by cooperating rather than competing and I really think that is, you know, very, very important to moving ourselves ahead particularly with respect to planning and marketing, that kind of collaboration makes a lot of sense in rural areas.

Yeager: What is your focus of marketing on who you are trying to go after? Is it a good defense at home but are you also looking, you've got Minnesota close by, you've got Nebraska, South Dakota, are you looking at other state areas? Or are you looking at even in the Des Moines area to say a lot of you have moved to Central Iowa, come back?

Evert: We're focusing on people who have a tie to that area. What we have learned is that people leave for jobs or family and we have three of our four counties that are actually growing naturally but it's the out-migration that is causing the major losses of population. So, if we can retain more of those we will probably grow and it's not thousands of people but if we can retain 10, 20, 30 people a year and start to break those numbers or narrow that gap a little bit better it would make a huge difference.

Yeager: We talk about infrastructure usually when it comes to helping develop a region whether it's good roads, good rail. What is the state's infrastructure role? How does it develop -- a development group, how do you make sure that is kept up to speed? Transportation has been a big issue at the legislature this year and always is.

Fisher: Well, it has and obviously rural infrastructure has always been a challenge, bringing together all the amenities, sewer, water, utilities, natural gas and advanced telecommunications and our state really is, in many of its rural areas and Kathy's in particular, really I think on the cusp of doing a lot of great things in terms of telecommunications infrastructure and broadband which really open up opportunities in rural Iowa. But for us it has largely been making sure that we do have the commercial space, the industrial space, the buildings and the industrial ground that are necessary and preparatory for growth.

Yeager: 20 seconds for your response.

Evert: We've got a lot of work that needs to be done in northwest Iowa, western Iowa on roads and I won't get on a soapbox there. But there's a lot of ...

Yeager: That could be something the legislature could do, you could see the expansion of 20?

Evert: Yes, 20 has got to be completed.

Yeager: That's a big number one priority.

Evert: It's a priority, yes. Highway 86 at the Minnesota border is a big priority for us.

Yeager: Always something going on and that's the way it is. I appreciate Rand Fisher for coming in and also Kathy Evert. Thank you for coming in tonight for The Iowa Journal.


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