Rural Communities ARE Viable
Manning, IA Private and professional people from Audubon, Breda, Manilla, Manning, Ames, Des Moines, and Pennsylvania attended the kickoff meeting to repopulate rural areas June 24 at Timmerman Shelter House in Manning.
Called by Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, state legislator from Manilla, participants heard the loud and clear message that small communities have tremendous potential, especially in light of ever-expanding technology and investments made by independent and locally-owned rural Iowa telephone companies.
“Population loss in my #1 concern, especially for its impact on our schools and how communities view each other,” says Representative Dan Muhlbauer, a Manilla area farmer and Iowa legislator. “Downward trends, loss in numbers of students and families that force school consolidation and closing concern me greatly. Looking only at the generations in my family, I graduated from Manilla, my kids graduated from IKM, my grandchildren will go to IKM-Manning and now the school in Manilla is closing – how far will my grandchildren have to travel to go to school? Will there be gainful work for my family to remain in the area? In Iowa? Will our communities exist in 10 or 15 years?
“We have businesses that want to grow,” continued Muhlbauer, a lifelong resident of Crawford County. “The reality is that in Iowa, we have a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, with two percent of our population unemployable, so we have little to no workforce to supply the needs of existing businesses, let alone add new ones. Western Iowa Advantage is doing great work in our counties. They have financial tools and great programming in place, but the reality is that we are not growing. I want to bring to the region something we’ve never used in our area, called Community Builders. Under the direction of Frank and Kimberlee Spillers and their company, Global Horizons, Community Builders is a means of strengthening communities by working together. I want to work toward ‘One Iowa,’ where what is good for each rural community is good for the state.”
“The foundation of Community Builders is how communities view and talk about themselves because what is said impacts how outsiders view us,” said Frank Spillers presenter and co-author of "The Be WUCA! Way, The ART of getting along." Communities, families, individuals, businesses, and organizations that have a good vision, and think, talk, and act well together, grow. Communities have the power to stop declining populations and re-brand themselves from ‘we’re dying’ to ‘we are attractive, viable, a-great-place-people-would-want-to-move-here.’ This shift in attitude and verbiage alone has tremendous power in the perception of how rural communities are viewed.
“In my nearly 30 years of working in rural community development, this is one fact I know: rural America can no longer afford conflict among themselves and between communities. Communities must let go and forgive histories of school mergers and athletic competitions. Rural communities will grow only when they move beyond conflict and turf issues. Communities must focus on positive change, collaboration, and open our minds to new ways of thinking to act as one. Successful communities relate well to each other within and between towns.”
Everyone must be able to see having a role in community growth. Involvement and commitment of all community members – not just a few of those in leadership positions or, as in some communities, “the good old boys club” - is key to the success of repopulation.
“In some communities where I have used Community Builders, the signs were clear: adapt, make changes, or continue the trend to decline,” shared Spillers. “Community members recognized the consequences of failure or, more pressing, failure to act. They came together, discussed their mutual opportunities, assumed responsibilities for their own growth, and took necessary action as a collaborative group.
“Communities and organizations must stop thinking as ‘silos,’ working only for their own benefit - that model no longer works. It’s going to take every person, every community, every school district, every business, and every organization working together in a way that is currently not being done. We’re using cutting-edge workforce engagement research with Community Builders to build upon current and future technology infrastructure because it works very efficiently with economic development tools communities and organizations already have in place.
“Community Builders teaches the art of getting along and brings people together to solve their own problems. For example, our young people often move away – sometimes because they are encouraged to do so because they’re told ‘there’s nothing for you here to make a living.’ Sometimes because they have the wrong name or live in ‘that’ part of town. Youth are critical to our rural life, as they could – and often do - become our council, school, and church board members. They become our mayors who own Main Street businesses and become leaders.
“We are targeting the 30 – 49 year-old as a strategy to build entrepreneurship through the technology infrastructure. West Central Iowa is sitting in the middle of a technology boom between the Des Moines and the Omaha/Council Bluffs economic engines. When people see opportunities for learning, a good career, to have a place to live and work where they feel safe, have a voice in what happens, and enjoy the quality of life important to them, they will be engaged in their families, workplace, and communities. It’s then an area will grow.”
City councils and communities are evaluating commitment to Community Builders to address repopulation and will discuss it at their July city council meetings. Community tours would begin in late July/early August, and take place once or twice a month until October, depending on how many communities sign up. Each gathering includes a 90-minute tour of area highlights, a meal, and dialogue on ways to repopulate and deal with community barriers to build wealth.
“In this process, lifelong residents will discover things they didn’t know existed,” Spillers concluded. “Because the world is changing so quickly, communities need contagiously positive people to be part of this movement who are growth-minded, have a ‘can do’ spirit, and unbounding optimism about the future of this region. Every single person in every community, of every background and history, is a potential resource to repopulate West Central Iowa.”