LA PORTE CITY, Iowa – This town emerged from the pandemic “ready to rumble” – literally.
The city of La Porte City completed a $3 million “streetscape” renovation of Main Street downtown while many businesses were shut down in 2020. It included a restoration of the raised-brick pavement in the street that autos and carriages rode over for generations.
“People wanted the bricks back because they like that rumble,” Mayor Dave Neil, a former Iowa state labor commissioner and member of the Iowa Board of Regents, said.
But there have also been losses due to the coronavirus. Neil knows that firsthand.
“I volunteered out at the cemetery digging graves,” he said. “I would imagine we lost at least a dozen (people).”
Residents of La Porte City — population 2,284, according to 2020 Census results just released — looked to each other for support, and kept their business and dollars closer to home.
And it’s not the first time.
While the pandemic put a crimp on business, Neil and others in La Porte City felt worse economically during the 1980s farm crisis. Neil also had a front row seat to that, as a union business representative with the United Auto Workers and a stint as president of UAW Local 838 in Waterloo when John Deere’ s Waterloo operations laid off nearly 10,000 workers from a peak of more than 16,000 in the late 1970s.
Many La Porte and rural area residents commuted to Waterloo for work at Deere as well as Rath Packing Co., which liquidated in 1985. IBP Inc., now part of Tyson Fresh Meats, filled some of that void with a large pork plant that opened in 1989.
While the city’s newspaper, the Progress Review, also ceased operations during the pandemic, the city is counting its blessings:
- A strong school district, the Union Community School District, which takes in La Porte as well as nearby Dysart.
- LPC Connect which grew out of a municipal phone company and provides internet and broadband, making working from home easier.
- A robust housing market which, like many other smaller towns, could use more moderately priced homes.
So, the city had “good bones” headed into the pandemic, and improved ones coming out of it, with the streetscape project the city hopes to promote with downtown gatherings and special events. The streetscape was enhanced by recent concurrent recreational trail projects and recreational improvements along Wolf Creek near downtown, including a riverwalk and kayak landing.
These are the kinds of amenities helping small towns thrive in Iowa while others are losing population, a four-month IowaWatch investigation found. There are several key factors that emerged as being important for a small town to succeed. La Porte City has several of these, including a strong downtown.
Odd Pops Tea Room & Eatery, located downstairs from the old Odd Fellows meeting space on Main Street, opened for special events in the fall of 2018 and public dining in October 2019 – on the cusp of both the streetscape project and a few months before the pandemic came to Iowa.
“We were really starting to roll at that point. We knew we were going to have close for the street and then the pandemic hit,” Odd Pops owner Deb Yordt said. “If anything good came out of it, at least it was all at the same time.”
Yordt chose to stay closed until July as street work continued. Business has started to pick up again.
“We’re known for scones,” she said. “We say, ‘Everybody must get sconed,’ “ playing off a line from a Bob Dylan song of the mid 1960s.
They could grow more, with the idea of adding a coffee shop in the fall. It’s difficult to find workers, she said. “That’s been more of a hindrance than anything.”
Black Hawk County, where La Porte City is located, had an unemployment rate of 4.1% in July, down from 5.2% in June, Iowa Workforce Development data show. Yet, employers seek workers.
“It seems to be hitting everywhere,” Neil said in June of the labor shortage. The town could not get enough lifeguards for the swimming pool, despite raising wages, and opened for limited hours, he said.
“The demand is there. And the labor force is not there. Iowa keeps struggling with that as a state, in my opinion. We don’t have people moving in here. “
The August 2020 derecho also posed a challenge for the street project because the supplier of new bricks for the stereetsape project, Culver’s Lawn and Landscape in Marion, sustained storm damage. Still, the work was done on time. The project was aided by a $750,000 grant from the Black Hawk County Gaming Association.
“You’re not only replacing the street, you’re replacing the infrastructure underneath,” Neil said. That included water lines and electrical work that included new lights and service to buildings. “When you start digging into an area that has not been excavated for the last 100 years, you run into a lot of unknowns.”
The project required a lot of meetings, which required masks and social distancing or by Zoom. “It was cumbersome, but we got through it,” Neil said. Midwest Concrete of Peosta was the general contractor.
One of the city’s biggest losses during the pandemic was the Progress Review ceasing operations after 127 years, the last 18 by Mike and Jan Whittlesey. Jan, also the town’s city clerk, was the business manager and Mike handled the bulk of the news coverage. They still maintain a publishing operation in town.
Neil said the town started a monthly newsletter to partly fill the void.
Facilities improvements at the Union schools, including its athletic facilities, drove and encouraged improvements downtown and elsewhere, Neil said. He said one housing addition has filled and a second one has been started.
“People saw that built, and it sent the right message to people that were not opposed to spending their dollars to fix up Main Street,” Neil said. “You put up a house for sale in this town and it’s gone tomorrow. We also have a couple of people in town whose hobby is rejuvenating old houses and they have done a great job. And they go overnight.”
Jan Pint and Wendy Walker, real estate agents known as “The Sold Sisters,” say sales did not slow with COVID. “Last year was one of our best years. We couldn’t believe,” Pint said. “We really have no answer for why. It’s a lot of young people; they just really want their own home, I think.”
Homes are going in around the $170,000 price range, where some sales might have been in the $120,000 range in past years.
One theory is that working from home had an effect with potential buyers wanting a big home office, Pint said.
That’s where having high-speed fiber and internet connections figures big, said Heidi Barz, who works in customer service at LPC Connect, a municipal communications utility founded in 1907 as a local telephone cooperative.
Pint and Neil said people are focusing more on their families and home communities, which has regenerated vitality in La Porte City and elsewhere.
“I personally feel La Porte’s really come back around,” Pint said. “Everything old is new again.”
“I think there’s a lot more pride in La Porte with what the city did on Main Street, and along the creek. Even little things, like they have a little skating rink. The school system has always been great. I think La Porte, to me, has a whole new feeling.”
Neil agreed, saying a couple of downtown community events in May attracted several hundred people and a couple of restaurants ran short of food.
“It just amazes me at night around there. The people walking, driving, riding their golf carts,” he said. “It’s vibrant. The pandemic really gave people an overnight lesson in what was important to them.”
READ MORE: HOW A HANDFUL OF IOWA TOWNS THRIVE, RISE ABOVE RURAL DECLINE
IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
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