According to Stephen Bloom in his recent essay for The Atlantic: “Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
I am here to say Bloom is wrong on more points than just being ‘lacking in educated.’ I know rural Iowa. I grew up there. I travel the state regularly, writing for The Iowan magazine about what’s going on. I never lack for copy. My faith in our state was renewed as I did research for a feature – ‘Sizing up small towns: Rethinking success in rural Iowa’ – published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of The Iowan.
Many small Iowa towns are not just alive, they’re thriving. The people I spoke with in Corning, Fairfield, and Elkader showed why this is so. Here’s what they said.
Small businesses are encouraged: “We operate on a handshake, and we’re flexible,” says Roger Thomas, executive director for both the EDC and Main Street Elkader, a program focused on historic commercial district revitalization. “We want them to succeed.”
Small town energy – Affordable operations: Adam Pollock moved his family and his business from the San Francisco Bay area to northeast Iowa 10 years ago. “There’s a palpable sense of energy in this town,” says Pollock. “It’s hard to live and manufacture in San Francisco. When everyone else went to China, we went to the heartland. People here are steady, reliable, and resourceful. With the Internet, we can do business anywhere.”
Communities are supportive and provide a range of amenities. Maria Fuller, D.D.S., graduated from the University of Iowa, and with her husband went looking for the perfect town in which to live and work. They chose Corning. “We wanted to raise our children in a small town,” she explains. “But it was really important that the school provide a solid education. My husband had to get a job. The community needed to provide amenities — a hospital, school, a sense of community.” Corning delivered everything on their list, says Dr. Fuller. “If you always had a dream to have your own business, rural Iowa is the place. Take the time to come, visit a while, and see.”
People are involved and make a difference. FairfieldMayor Ed Malloy sought broad community participation when he initiated a visioning process for the community shortly after he was elected. Planning took 18 months – a process that Malloy says helped the community “grow, develop, mature, and gracefully integrate into a whole. We have 80 different community organizations that said, ‘Yes, we understand,’ and, ‘Yes, we’ll take it on,’ ” he says. Among other accomplishments, their planning resulted in a $10 million Arts & Convention Center.
Sure, rural Iowa has its challenges. What place doesn’t these days? But I’m pleased to say rural Iowans are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They’re actively involved. They’re looking to the future. They’re making the good life happen.
Photo by Jason Fort, courtesy of The Iowan magazine