Empowering Rural Iowa: Initiatives Aim to Grow Iowa’s Small Communities

April 12, 2019 | Empowering rural Iowa

There are many business and community leaders across the state who see rural Iowa as essential to the state’s economic vitality. That’s why it’s concerning to see decreasing population trends in small towns. According to the U.S. Census, 71 Iowa counties saw their population decrease from 2010 to 2017 — all of them rural-based.

Last fall, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg took steps to address the problem by launching an Empower Rural Iowa initiative through an executive order. The initial goal was to find new ways to grow and improve the vitality of rural Iowa through task forces and a partnership with the Iowa Rural Development Council.

“I’m a product of rural Iowa, and I’m driven to create opportunity throughout this state,” Reynolds said when the initiative was launched. “I believe the heart, soul and spirit of Iowa will always remain in our small towns and rural communities… I want concrete solutions for the unique challenges of rural Iowa in order to maintain its vibrancy and ensure there is opportunity everywhere.”

Three task forces were created: the Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force, the Growing Rural Iowa Task Force and the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force. The Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force has set its sights on quality housing. The Growing Rural Iowa Task Force is focusing on leadership and strategic development within communities. And the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force is looking at financing broadband connectivity.

The co-chairs of the initiative are Gregg and Sandy Ehrig, who works with the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Rural Development Council.

“We’re passionate about making sure there is an opportunity and prosperity in every corner of our state,” Gregg said when the initiative was launched.

Throughout the state, there are programs similar to the governor’s initiative, striving to create and raise awareness of positive things happening in our rural communities. From statewide efforts to community-driven approaches, organizations are helping rural Iowa’s economies grow.

Entrepreneurship, businesses drive economic vitality

When Ehrig recalls the economic development and entrepreneurship landscape in Iowa 15 years ago, she remembers there was a clear gap. There were no John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers, which have locations on four Iowa college campuses today. There were very few resources connecting budding entrepreneurs with assistance. That problem was compounded in rural communities, which struggled to create infrastructure for businesses — infrastructure that is easy to access in bigger metro cities.

“You look back, and I like to say that people could barely spell the word entrepreneur 12 years ago,” Ehrig said with a laugh. “We just didn’t have the resources or the ecosystem we have today that helps not only startups, but existing companies looking to grow and be innovative.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau, where Ehrig now works as the economic development administrator, noticed that gap and launched the Renew Rural Iowa initiative, which provides education, technical assistance, mentoring and financial resources for existing business and entrepreneurs.

Now in its 13th year, the Renew Rural Iowa initiative has helped many entrepreneurs in rural communities find the mentoring, assistance and awareness they need by connecting them with crucial resources like the Small Business Development Center, the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) at Iowa State and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“I think the thinking behind the program was pretty forward,” Ehrig said. “I really compliment the Bureau to start a program that was broad enough in its vision that we were able to adapt it nicely as the ecosystem has grown.”

The most important component of the Renew Rural Iowa initiative is education. The Iowa Farm Bureau hosts a five-times-per-year seminar called Journey to Your Vision. The program features co-hosts who take entrepreneurs and business owners through a full day of classes to help them learn important business skills.

The Renew Rural Iowa initiative also strives to find new ways to connect entrepreneurs with resources. To accomplish this goal, the program hosts a quarterly roundtable at the Iowa Farm Bureau headquarters in West Des Moines. The discussion pulls in all kinds of businesses and development organizations in the state to find and address issues still facing entrepreneurs today.

EntreFEST, a two-day conference dubbed the biggest gathering of entrepreneurs and innovators in Iowa, was an idea born out of the roundtable discussions. So was the Dream Big, Grow Here program, which awards small grants to Iowa entrepreneurs through contests.

“We have a lot of resources in Iowa who have great  ideas, but they haven’t been able to talk to each other and coordinate,” Ehrig said. “That’s why we have the roundtable, so they can look at the gaps, notice what’s happening, and find ways to help entrepreneurial businesses.”

The Renew Rural Iowa initiative itself operates a venture fund, which can help businesses in need of financial assistance.

Another important component of the Renew Rural Iowa initiative is recognition. In smaller communities, the successes of businesses can get lost or forgotten next to some of the giant businesses in the metro areas.

The Renew Rural Iowa initiative started a recognition program to honor entrepreneurs who have found success. Around 80 businesses have been honored with the Leader Award. And to make their stories more than a flash in the pan, the Iowa Farm Bureau also hosts a small podcast with the businesses and partners with WHO radio’s “The Big Show.”

“There are all kinds of companies that are nominated from all walks of life,” Ehrig said. “They can use that recognition to grow their business.”

These businesses can serve as inspiration to other entrepreneurs in rural Iowa. Earlier this year, a business called the Art of Education University earned an award from Renew Rural Iowa. Based in Osage, the company provides continuing education for art instructors. The organization has hit a very specific niche and serves customers around the world.

“Who knew we had a university-status business that has international operations from main street, Iowa?” Ehrig said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

As Renew Rural Iowa continues to grow, it has also shifted into advocacy for resources that entrepreneurs need, like broadband internet, workforce, housing and more. These essential resources can make or break a business in smaller communities.

“We have to help out these communities by producing some viable businesses,” Ehrig said. “To do that, we have to have schools and amenities the businesses need. We need to make sure these economies are stable.”

A better Ottumwa

If you drove down main street Ottumwa a decade ago, you would have received a much different impression than if you did the same today. The city of about 24,000 people in southeast Iowa was littered with closed storefronts, poorly upkept buildings and little activity.

“You probably would have had a low opinion of the place,” said Steve Dust, president and CEO of the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation.

Today, that has drastically changed, Dust said. There are newly renovated buildings, full storefronts and options for downtown living in upstairs lofts, much akin to housing choices in bigger cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The improvements are thanks in part to the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization focused on improving the economic and social viability of Ottumwa and the larger Wapello County area. The foundation helps create high-quality jobs, redevelop Ottumwa’s downtown and riverfront areas, and bring more housing options to the marketplace, and awards scholarships.

The organization began in 2010 after the sale of the public Ottumwa Regional Health Center to a private entity. To ensure the proceeds of that sale would benefit the community, the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation was created. Dust, who has been with the foundation for almost a year, said he hasn’t been able to find another organization like Ottumwa’s — a community-based, private foundation.

“I have found this foundation to be fully unique,” Dust said. “There’s a national foundation that does similar things, and everyone had a community foundation, but there’s nothing that is private and operates like we do.”

In the past few years, Dust and the organization have been focusing on attracting high-quality technology jobs. Leveraging the talent pool from local Indian Hills Community College, the foundation was integral in recruiting a startup company called IAM AGTECH, which is committed to bringing precision optics-based technology measurements to the agribusiness industry and beyond. The company has hired five employees since coming to Ottumwa in 2016, and that number is expected to rise in the coming years.

In downtown Ottumwa, the foundation supplied a grant that helped develop a building and convert it into a Center for Advanced Professional Studies — a national organization that helps high school students earn professional experiences. Officially named Spark Tank, the program puts high school students into a workplace environment working on real-life business issues. They partner with local companies to tackle problems.

“The students are coached and held accountable for coming up with solutions and products,” Dust said. “We’re obviously trying to equip our high school students with the knowledge and the practicum to go on to higher education and get into the workplace with the best skills possible.”

The foundation also helps fund programming for the new Pickwick Early Childhood Center. The preschool is a collaboration between the Ottumwa School District and the federally funded Sieda Head Start program. The goal was to increase the quality of preschool in the community, and now more than 350 children go through the program every day.

These programs go hand in hand with the downtown amenity upgrades the foundation has funded. There are more changes underway, with a redevelopment project of three downtown blocks slated to begin at the beginning of May.

“We’ll be renewing the look, the design and the sustainability of our main street so that it’s the place to be,” Dust said. “We’re also attempting to open up some space for downtown commercial and residential construction.”

While the amenities are important, Dust said the true avenue for growth in Ottumwa and Wapello County is through excellent education and job choices. That’s what the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation will continue to do in the future.

“We believe that in order for our economic area to thrive, Ottumwa must focus on job creation and education,” Dust said. “Amenities are very important for attracting talent — don’t let me minimize that — and we’re doing some good stuff here downtown. But for us, we’re going to be focusing on what Ottumwa can do for quality job creation and high-quality education.”