Iowa’s small towns struggle to gain traction and grow
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[This is the first of a series of articles examining the challenges facing rural Iowa communities. The series is a product of research conducted by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news service located in Iowa City.]
By Randy Pauson and Zoe Seiler
A sign welcomes visitors to Humeston, a town of just shy of 500 people in southern Iowa.
The town of Humeston, Iowa, straddles Highway 65 in the northwestern corner of Wayne County, less than a 30-minute drive from the Missouri border. Its population peaked in the 1920s at 1,214 people.
Today, the southern Iowa town has only 494 people.
“A lot of kids, when they graduate, they want to get out and see the world,” David Dotts, of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, said. It’s one of the many explanations for the population loss.
Like nearly all of the other incorporated towns in Wayne County — except for Corydon, the county seat — Humeston has seen a consistent decline in its population since the early 1900s.
Humeston is not alone: Small towns around Iowa have been fighting to support themselves as rural populations continue to decline, while state government has been investing more in larger cities where the population is growing.
This report is the result of an IowaWatch Simpson College Journalism Project involving student journalists in Simpson’s spring 2019 journalism seminar.
The journalists worked on this story starting in January 2019 with Lyle Muller of IowaWatch and Mark Siebert, Simpson assistant professor of multimedia communication.
In 2018, Iowa’s metro regions received the most financial support from state government via the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA).
Reporting this spring by an IowaWatch Simpson College Journalism Project showed cities with populations more than 50,000 people received $61.3 million in direct financial assistance through state and federal grants and loans. Several of these communities also received assistance in the form of tax benefits.
Meanwhile, rural businesses and communities with fewer than 5,000 people received a little less than $24.9 million in direct financial assistance from the state and federal government, the reporting project revealed.
Assistance was awarded to businesses and communities for economic development purposes that include job growth and expansion as well as capital rehabilitation and renovation.
For example, startup companies such as Accelerated Ag Technologies LLC in Ankeny received $300,000 in March 2018 from the Iowa Innovation Acceleration Fund. This fund “promotes formation and growth of businesses that engage in the transfer of technology to competitive, profitable companies that create high-paying jobs,” the economic development authority website states.
That same month, a Des Moines-based startup called InfraLytiks received $100,000 in direct assistance from the Demonstration Fund, which provides “assistance to companies with market-ready innovative technologies or products that have a clear potential for commercial viability,” the economic development authority website states.
Several buildings in urban cities also received millions from the State Historic Preservation Tax Credit.
In Dubuque, for instance, SS Event Center LLC was awarded over $2 million from the tax credit in June to renovate the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church. SLE Investments LC in Cedar Rapids received almost $3.6 million that same month from the tax credit to rehabilitate the Harper and McIntire Company Warehouse.