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Small Town Takes Control of Own Destiny

posted on January 10, 2003

Officials in 12 states are pushing USDA Secretary Anne Veneman to ditch new rules that would exempt federally licensed grain elevators from state laws requiring them to contribute to indemnity funds. The funds are set up to protect farmers who may have grain in elevators that file for bankruptcy. Grain elevators remain important cogs in the infrastructure of rural economies. But, more and more, communities are seeking to develop strategies to diversify their economies. Some have become quite adept relaying infrastructure to better connect Main Street with the rest of the world. A case in point is a small Iowa town that has not only laid new infrastructure, but is now seeing dividends for the investment in itself. David Miller reports.


Small Town Takes Control of Own Destiny

Manning, Iowa, is atypical for a town with a population of 1500. While other communities like it across the U.S. are having economic trouble, Manning is surviving and thriving.

Residents attribute their success to many things but one of them is the attitude that any project that benefits the community can and should be done.

One of the linchpins to this success is the Manning Betterment Foundation. Though not the only group concerned with the town's survival, the 42-year-old civic-based organization has been a driving force behind sustaining the community.

Claus Bunz is president of the Manning Betterment Foundation.

Claus Bunz, President, Manning Betterment Foundation: "I'd be less than candid or honest with you if I told you we never have differences of opinion or disagreements...I would say in all the years that I've lived in this community I have very seldom seen any project fail that really had true merit behind it and it was really the kind of thing that in the final analysis was good for the general populous."

The group counts among its members the mayor, chairpersons of the town's municipal utility boards and local business leaders. By appointing the right committee member to either search for funding, write grant proposals, or encourage citizens to rally behind a cause, the Manning Betterment Foundation has been able to get the funding it needed. Their work has made projects like building a community center and paving the way for a high-tech business to come to town possible.

Besides the intangibles like an employee pool, that describes itself as hard-working, well-educated and highly-dedicated, Manning has access to cash. That cash comes from the town's locally owned and operated municipal utilities. When residents make payments for power, light and phone service, the money stays in the community. That money can then be leveraged for use as investment capital. Being able to combine this cash base with state and federal grant money has allowed the community-at-large to bankroll many of its projects.

As an example, in the early 90s, the Betterment Foundation was trying to entice the high-tech computer firm ECI to bring its technical support center and hardware fulfillment division to town. But one basic element was missing: reliable telephone service that could handle high-speed Internet traffic.

After getting overwhelming community support, the Light and Gas utility boards worked with the area Rural Electrical Cooperative to gather up the necessary $3.2 million to create a telephone company. The new phone company provides residents and businesses with-state-of-the-art phone, cable television and high-speed Internet connections. ECI, even before the work was completed on the new system, took the Betterment Foundation up on its offer.

Vaughn Christensen is Vice President of Technical Support Solutions for ECI.

Vaughn Christensen, Vice President, Technical Support Solutions: "I think that from my first visit I could see that they knew what they were doing, they were organized, they had a plan and in fact they were already half way done with the temporary facility by the time I first visited."

This same center had been located in both San Jose', California, and at the company's home base in Iowa's capital city, Des Moines. But company officials, who had worked hard to garner customers around the world, quickly discovered neither move was economical in terms of cost or customer relations. In 1997, encouraged by what Manning had to offer, ECI moved the 100 miles from the capitol city and brought with it two things: decent jobs and decent wages.

Vaughn Christensen, Vice President, Technical Support Solutions: "...even talking about decent wages in rural Iowa is a lot different than even Des Moines. There's a big difference and so we are able to pay good wages here that are still below market wages in Des Moines and especially in California or other large metropolitan areas."

Another example of the community's resolve was seen in the effort to renovate the Manning Regional Healthcare Center. A few years ago, hospital administrators realized that if they wanted to continue to serve the people in the four-county area near Manning there would need to be a major upgrade to the facility. Through a combination of hospital funds, construction bonds, and assistance from city utilities, the hospital raised $4-million.

With the recent conclusion of renovation, Manning Regional is now able to handle 90% of the care of the area's citizens; everything from maternity services to managed care for the elderly.

Michael Ketcham is the Chief Executive Officer at the Manning Regional Healthcare Center.

Michael Ketcham, Chief Executive Officer, Manning Regional Healthcare Center: "This is a community that's always rallied around health care. It's been something that's been important. You look around our state, very few communities our size have a health care system that's progressive, growing, current and can deliver quality health care to everyone in that community."

Manning Regional is the town's number one employer with 155 on staff and salaries totaling $3.5 million.

Those employees keep some of the money in town by shopping at local businesses, all located within walking distance of the hospital. Currently, there is only one business space for rent on main street.

The spirit to keep Manning current and viable is alive in other parts of the community, as well. At Manning Community School teachers and students in Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade have access to a school-wide wireless Intranet system. The network allows students access to school assignments and the Internet via a server located on school property. And Manning Community is working on making improvements to its $100-thousand network so all of the 520 students, including those in grades 9 through 12, can use the system.

And there is no sign Manning is slowing down. The Manning Heritage Foundation, the proud owner of an authentic haus barn reassembled piece by piece from a small town in Germany, is planning a gift shop and a hotel on their property south of town.

Meanwhile, the Betterment Foundation is planning to open a daycare center. In typical Manning style, the center's curriculum is designed to provide for everything including life skills for its young clients.

Vaughn Christensen, Vice President, Technical Support Solutions: " say you need something in Manning and they say okay, we'll figure out how to do it. The Betterment Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, they don't look at the current situation, they look five years out and say okay, how are we going to get to that."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: economy Iowa news rural