Beating the Odds: How to Grow a Small Town

Nov 16, 2015

Time changes everything, and in Iowa, that’s glaringly apparent in many of the state’s communities with populations of less than 5,000 people. So the story goes, small towns are dying. But according to Iowa State Professor Terry Besser, that’s not exactly true. She has been monitoring Iowa’s rural communities  for more than two decades, trying to put her finger on what it is that keeps towns alive… and what contributes to the rural blight.

She says community pride and “social capital,” the sense of belonging and purpose citizens feel, play a big role. Shane Kiernan, who lives in Conrad, Iowa, agrees. In the late 1980’s folks in his town were faced with the realization that their grocery store was going to close, and that, he thought, would seal the town's fate. Grocery stores are what he calls “anchor stores” in smaller communities.

Kiernan says the community held a town meeting, and banned together to ensure the store would keep its doors open. “We started focusing on small victories,” he says. “Eventually, after lots of little fundraisers and community events, tons of people were on board. We even made sweatshirts for the town “university.” They said ‘e plurbus plow us,’ fitting because there are lots of farming families who live in Conrad.”

This hour on Talk of Iowa, Besser and Kiernan talk with host Charity Nebbe. We also hear from Wendy Heuton, who is Executive Director of Osage, Iowa’s Chamber of Commerce; Marcie Bourner, who is a part of Gowrie, Iowa’s Development Commission; and Paul Clousing, City Manager in Sioux Center. Michael Wagler, State Coordinator for the Main Street Iowa program, which helps Iowa’s towns with development projects, also joins the conversation. 

*This program originally aired on Talk of Iowa on May 22, 2014.