Searching for solutions to challenges facing rural Iowa
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[This is the third in 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
Aside from awarding money to businesses and communities who apply for it, what has the state been doing to address economic decline in over two-thirds of its counties and encourage overall growth?
“Virtually nothing,” said Dave Swenson, an associate scientist at Iowa State University’s Department of Economics and a lecturer in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. “The state’s rural economy has consistently declined for the last 25 years. And notwithstanding lots of language and some money and the name of rural development, very little of it has produced net growth in selected rural areas.”
He said that over time, rural development in Iowa has been more of a political matter than a practical one.
While past efforts have not yielded booming results, efforts are underway in state government to find solutions to reverse, or at least slow down, rural decline.
On Wednesday, April 24, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed an Empower Rural Iowa Act that addresses several rural concerns, including expanding broadband access to rural areas and providing housing credits for people affected by spring 2019 flooding. [Ed. Note: Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed HF 772, the Empower Rural Iowa Act, on Monday, May 22, after this story was published. 5/20/19]
Last July, Gov. Kim Reynolds created the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative. The initiative called for the creation of an Office of Rural Affairs, as well as three task forces to address specific rural issues.
The task forces’ initial recommendations, published in December 2018, called for the Office of Rural Affairs be the primary point of contact for small communities to access programs that support rural areas.
The three task forces—Investing in Rural Iowa, Growing Rural Iowa and Connecting Rural Iowa—focused on rural housing, leadership and broadband access, respectively.
Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council and founder of the Bill Menner Group, has worked with Reynolds on this effort. She asked the Iowa Rural Development Council to partner with her to create the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative, along with 66 appointed task force members.
“Those task force members met on a number of occasions, gave some recommendations to the governor,” Menner, of Grinnell, said.
Legislation was introduced in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature that reflected Empower Rural Iowa Task Force recommendations, such as money for broadband to rural areas and expanding Workforce Housing Tax Credits, Menner said. The House bill emerged from the Ways and Means Committee April 10 with a recommendation for passage.
The bill includes $25 million for the Workforce Housing Tax Credit program. It also includes provisions to expand the state’s broadband grant program to assist service providers in underserved rural regions, a goal that the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force was working toward in 2018.
Kiana Johnson, the executive director of the O’Brien County Economic Development Corporation in Primghar and also a member of the Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force, said the Workforce Housing Tax Credit has been a great tool for her in O’Brien County and has enabled more housing projects.
The Workforce Housing Tax Credit assists Iowa communities with housing projects. That tax credit currently has about $5 million set aside for rural communities in Iowa’s 88 least populous counties.
The task force met throughout 2018, discussing housing needs across the state and brainstorming recommendations to state government leaders. The recommendations included helping rural communities across Iowa conduct housing needs assessments and providing more resources to the portion of the Workforce Housing Tax Credit specifically set aside for Iowa’s 88 least populous counties.
The Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force sought to ensure recent funding from a 2015 state broadband grant program is used as efficiently as possible, focusing on areas of Iowa that have low connectivity. The task force also plans to identify future funding sources for the program, such as from online sales tax revenue or gaming revenue, according to the task force recommendations.
Hollee McCormick, a member of the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force, said much of the group’s efforts last year focused on ways to improve the mapping system the state uses to determine which parts of the states have broadband coverage and which don’t.
“There’s got to be a better way to kind of gauge what’s available, so you find out where are the neediest parts of our state,” said McCormick, who is also the manager of Economic Development and Community Relations at the Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative in rural northeast Iowa.
“We need to have a better tracking system of, I guess, reliable information concerning speeds and availability,” she added.
Reynolds signaled support in her Condition of the State speech this year for expanding broadband access and asked the Legislature to provide $20 million over two years to do that.
The Growing Rural Iowa Task Force, meanwhile, is charged with helping leaders in small communities accomplish goals that help them grow.
“For example, communities should be able to pursue Empowered Rural Community status by tackling specific projects that are needed in their community, engaging in strategic planning initiatives, or developing a local leadership program,” according to the group’s recommendations.