ELMA – This town is all about building bridges – even though you normally won’t find an expanse of water much wider than Mead Creek on the northwest edge of town.

There’s one covered bridge, an old rail head viaduct over Main Street that is now part of a recreational trail. That has now become a community symbol, a motif of what this Howard County community of a little more than 500 is trying to accomplish.

In fact, the name of the town’s nonprofit community betterment organization is The Bridge Inc. It’s a coalition of people that have put together a community complex project now underway in a closed elementary school building.

Elma is one of a handful of Iowa communities involved in Shrink Smart, an Iowa State University research project begun in 2017 that examines how towns with decreasing populations keep their quality of life. IowaWatch visited Bancroft, Elma and Sac City and found strong leadership and social infrastructure are necessary to fit into the shrinking but thriving category.

Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

David Peters is an Iowa State University professor of sociology. Credit: Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

“Elma really is, I would say, a community wide effort, ” Iowa State professor of sociology David Peters said.

One element of Elma’s school building project, a new public library, is anticipated to be completed this summer. An addition to a child day care center is also in play.

As of mid-February almost $1.1 million had been raised toward the community complex project. It is now estimated to cost $1.4 million following most recent estimates that added about $200,000 to the project for materials costs. 

“We were worried we wouldn’t have the money to keep things going. Money’s been coming in just fine. We need to get the materials in here,” said Bruce Weigel, a banker by trade and treasurer of The Bridge, Inc. and its economic development committee.

“But I think we’ll still get it done by late spring, early summer, is our hope,” Weigel said.

Peters and his fellow ISU researchers are even helping — a team of upperclassmen students from various backgrounds – will work with city leaders and the community to gather ideas for some art and design work on the community center project this spring under Jennifer Drinkwater, an ISU professor and community art specialist with ISU Extension.

“They’ve created this ethic of involving everybody, getting broad-based support, really making these bridging linkages to all segments of the community to get, really, everyone on board,” Peters said.

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Work is in in progress in early 2022 to renovate a portion of Elma’s former elementary school gym into a new public library. Pictured from left to right, Elma library director Renee Burke, Erin Ludwig of The Bridge Inc community betterment organization; City Clerk Shannon Gebel and Bruce Weigel of The Bridge Inc. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

Elma has been successful in recent public and private fundraising efforts within and outside the community, ranging from small local donations, to community fundraising events like a chili cook-off, to a grant from the Roy J. Carver Trust in Muscatine, to state grants, including some available through COVID relief.

A couple of community leaders even brought “American Idol” winner and recording artist Maddie Poppe of Clarksville, just 45 miles away, to town for a benefit concert last fall. It was a birthday gift from resident Joe Whitinger to his wife, Kathy, but grew into a fundraiser for the community complex project, to which the couple are donors. 

While the city proper actually saw its population drop by 23 to 505 in the 2020 census, a 4.33% decrease from 546 residents in 2010, the outlying Mennonite communities have been growing.

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A sign in the hitching shelter for Mennonite patients at the health clinic in Elma. The Mennonite community was instrumental in having and building the clinic. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

David Oberholtzer, a Groffdale Conference Mennonite, who operates the popular Farmland Hardware store west of Elma, said the overall Mennonite population, made up of different faith traditions, has grown over the past 20 to 30 years, to roughly 250 families. Some are “horse-and-buggy” Mennonites while others use more modern conveniences like automobiles to varying degrees. He came to the area from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1999.

There are several churches around and outside of Elma, which Oberholtzer said is “on the eastern edge” of the area where most of the Mennonites have settled.

Elma community leaders here are relying on inclusion to revitalize their community — including reaching out to that substantial Mennonite population, to maintain basic services, including a new health clinic, staffed by Regional Health Services of Howard County in Cresco.

“There was some donated labor. Some Mennonites helped the contractor in charge,” Oberholtzer said.

It is complete with a parking space in the back for the rural Mennonite neighbors to hitch their horse and buggies – but an admonishment for those good neighbors to police their horses’ waste, and to leave nothing but hoof prints.

The Mennonites “were a huge influence on getting the medical clinic here,” said Erin Ludwig, also a banker and a volunteer on the Elma Community Complex and heads up overall community volunteer efforts on the Serving Our Community committee of The Bridge Inc. Oberholtzer said that, in addition to working with the town population to secure the clinic, the consevative rural Mennonites, while not involved in public community events, do business in town and use services there.

“It’s definitely a team approach” within Elma, Ludwig said. “There are multiple entities working for the community betterment. I think the community has been good about identifying the needs of the community, and thinking of what do we need to be able to attract and retain young families. And then we work to try to tackle those issues.

Ludwig said the complex project is an example. The school closed in 2015 and the building was given to the city. The goal was to match what the city did with it with the needs of the community.

“You’re trying to provide the service that they need; day care, for one,” Ludwig said. “If we’re going to have young families, they have to have a place to take their kids.”

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The Elma water tower gleams in the winter Iowa sun. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

“Even things to do,” City Clerk Shannon Gebel said, like a splash pad in the city park. “Especially after COVID hit and you couldn’t go swimming anywhere and there’s nothing to do. That’s when people really wanted that, right across the street: from the community complex in the park.”

Ludwig said identifying needs came first. The day care and library were tops. Both are being expanded. The library wanted a larger space than the current 12-person programming/community room and to be fully accessible.

“To be next door to the day care would be huge,” said Renee Burke, library director since 2013.

An engineer was hired to make sense of the finances, Ludwig said. A library consultant also held a community meeting to gather ideas; a decision was made to renovate the school gym into a new library and multipurpose community room.   

There were challenges; the medical clinic had to be built further away from the day care/library complex in the old school than was originally hoped, because of revisions to state flood maps that effectively prevented all-new construction at a location closer to the school. 

“You’re never going to make everybody happy,” Ludwig said. “But you keep plugging away, putting positives out there, try to just keep telling our story, raising money. We were very strategic in our fundraising,” utilizing Weigel’s expertise.

To get momentum, the leaders sought large donations, sent mailers outside the community, and applied for every grant that had an angle with the clinic, library and day care.

“They knew who we were in Des Moines, because we invited the governor to stop by,” Weigel added. Gov. Kim Reynolds visited in September 2020.

“We take every angle we can,” city clerk Gebel said.

“We’re going to get this thing done,” Ludwig said.

But it took some convincing, Weigel said.

“You know, when you start out saying you’re going to raise ($1.4 million), and the largest project ever in the city probably would have been $250,000 eight 10 years ago, there were a ton of people who weren’t necessarily against the (current) project, but (said), ‘You’re never going to raise that kind of money.’ ” 

“And gee, look what we’re doing now,” Gebel said. 

“We were just gluttons for punishment,” Burke joked.

Other projects followed, for the splash pad and a community-based ambulance project.

“We have a lot going on,” Ludwig said. “We’re still making progress. We have other good things happening in our community, raising money, all tapping the same resources. We’re all making progress. We all want it done, yesterday,” she said, with a snap of her fingers and a laugh.

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A new medical clinic was built in Elma with help of the rural Mennonite community. It is staffed by Regional Health Services of Howard County in Cresco. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

Collaboration with the Mennonite community centered on the clinic after the flood construction limits came up. 

“It’s about the convenience,” Oberholtzer said, having a clinic nearby for those who don’t use autos. “We’ve got the horse and buggies. It’s nice to be able to drive to the clinic instead of having (automobile) drivers take us” to more distant facilities.

The $250,000 building went up fast, which was important to keep Regional Health Services of Howard County interested and engaged in the project. It opened in January 2021. It’s heavily used, and its hours and staffing have been expanded.

Weigel said the clinic has been something Elma had sought for 20 years, and the now-growing rural population of Mennonites was a selling point to bringing health services to town. 

“One of the things that is unique about our area is the Mennonite communities, and there literally are several of them,” Weigel said. Oberholzer said of the half-dozen different local Mennonite communities the Groffdale and Weaverland conferences are the largest.

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Farmland Hardware is a popular Mennonite-run hardware store west of Elma. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

They reside in an area bordered by U.S. Highways 63 on the east; 218 on the south and west and 18 on the north. The quality of farmland and the comparative remoteness from major highways attracted the Mennonites to the area, Weigel and Oberholtzer said.

“When we say our population is declining, it is — in town,” Weigel said, “But if you drew a 10-mile circle around Elma, I’d be willing to bet we have twice as many people living in that area as we had 20 years ago.”

“It probably tripled” within the Mennonite population, Oberholtzer said. “At least more than doubled in the past 20 years.”

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This covered viaduct over the east end of Main Street in Elma is a former rail head that is now part of the Old Roundhouse Recreational Trail. It’s a city landmark and surrounded by a park. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

The proliferation of Mennonite schools outside of Elma is one indication of rural population growth. “There’s 13 of them,” Oberholtzer said. “It started with just one in 1993.”

The Mennonites built dairy facilities and new houses, adding to the tax base of Howard County,

That includes some commercial businesses,  “I was one of them,:” Oberholtzer said of his hardware store. “We opened in 2000. We expanded three times.”

There’s a produce auction site that, during the growing season, attracts major commercial clients, including grocery chains. Elma attracts drive-through business in town from auction goers.

Public school choice is both a selling point and a challenge.

“As soon as the school closed, we started promoting that you can live in Elma and go to (any of) three school districts if you want,” Weigel said, under open enrollment. “We tried to spin it as best we could.”

One issue in Elma, however, which other towns share, is school transportation, with multiple school districts close by, but the city only in one.

Elma is in the Howard-Winneshiek school district; the school is in Cresco, 27 miles away. “There’s technically three or four school districts that are closer, the Riceville one being only 19 miles away,” Weigel said. New Hampton is 19 miles away, and Osage is 22 miles away.

“When they closed the school, that caused a lot of parents to decide to send their kids elsewhere, depending on the city they work in.”

But public-school buses from outlying districts aren’t allowed in Elma, so parents who send kids to the other districts must arrange for private transportation. A private service takes students from Elma to Riceville.

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The little town of Elma is a town of 500 in Howard County. Despite shrinking in population, its leaders are raising $1.2 million for conversion of an elementary school building into a community center for a new public library and child care center. Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

Elma also is juxtaposed in the middle of multiple county-seat communities.

“Elma sits 20-25 miles from the edge of all four county seats,” Weigel said — New Hampton, Cresco, Osage and Charles City. “That’s a curse and blessing. We’ve been able to find ways to make the blessings stronger than the curses.”

Elma is also an hour from the larger cities of Mason City, Rochester, Minn. and Waterloo-Cedar Falls.

“We have a lot of people who work in those communities and live here, for the low cost of living and quality of life,” Ludwig said.

A clinic. Expanded library. New day care. Connections to a growing Mennonite community. Lots of bridges.

ISU sociology professor Peter said, “Little Elma, I don’t know how they’ve done this, but they’ve created this ethic of involving everybody. …They provide a lot of social identity. … This concept of community is going to persist.”


How 3 Iowa towns are getting smaller but smarter through Iowa State program
Generations of local leaders propel Bancroft, population 699
Elma, population 505, meets town needs through bridge building, $1.4 million project
Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones
Iowa’s shrinking towns could be state, regional mentors

Pat Kinney is a longtime Iowa journalist who previously was a reporter and editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet focused on investigative journalism and educating young journalists. 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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