Some Iowa towns may be shrinking in population, but they may have an impact on other communities in Iowa and beyond.

Officials with the Iowa League of Cities and researchers with Iowa State University say a handful – dwindling but proactively maintaining and improving their quality of life – are raising eyebrows and may be pathfinders for other communities to follow.

Colleagues have already reached some to find out what those towns are doing right, said Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, an advocacy and training group for 850 Iowa member cities.

Alan Kemp is the executive director of the Iowa League of Cities.

“It was sort of interesting to look at this idea of shrinking smart,” Kemp said. “Even if you’re not able to maintain your population, what is it about certain cities that have it in their DNA or their culture that remain viable and great places to live? What are they doing?”

ISU researchers and League of Cities officials hope to develop a curriculum around the “Shrink Smart” program out of Iowa State and use officials from communities like Elma, Sac City and Bancroft to serve as mentors for their sister cities in Iowa and in the Midwest.

Shrink Smart program researchers noted that European towns that were decreasing in size focused on quality of life rather than worrying about growth. The ISU team took data from the Iowa Small Town Project and looked for outliers. They ended up visiting six towns. 

ISU professor and Shrink Smart researcher Biswa Das presented findings to the North Dakota League of Cities at their annual conference, Kemp said. “I know that the Wisconsin municipal league is also interested in this. So we can look at our successful communities … what works and what doesn’t is very valuable.”

This has been a challenge for the Midwest, he said. 

With support from the Solutions Journalism Network

For example, Iowa League of Cities researcher Erin Mullinix said, the city of Elma may hold lessons with its community complex project to locate expanded library and child care facilities and a community room on a former elementary site and a previous project to locate a medical clinic.

Officials of Elma, Sac City and Bancroft made such a presentation at an Iowa League of Cities conference last September. IowaWatch visited these cities in the winter of 2022.

“We can gather so much data,” Mullenix said. “But to put with that the local perspective, talking to not just the city officials, but engage with other local stakeholders and leadership, that is one of the interesting things that we see: who are leading these really positive success stories.”

In the case of Elma, she said, “They’re a small town, but it’s taken support from a variety of sources, and people don’t care who’s getting credit for those. To watch that, and layer that with the data, and piece together the thread of why they’re being successful, it’s really neat to see that.”

A curriculum subcommittee has been formed to chart those towns’ successes “and how they would translate that to another community,” Mullinix said. “Is it through fundraising, or do they have a local champion that’s driving that, or a team of champions?”

The Elma Community Complex project involves an expanded child care center and public library in the town’s now-closed elementary school. Pictured from left to right in front of the complex are Bruce Weigel, treasurer of The Bridge Inc community betterment organization; City Clerk Shannon Gebel; Erin Ludwig of The Bridge Inc. and library director Renee Burke. (Photo by Pat Kinney / IowaWatch) Credit: Pat Kinney/IowaWatch

Very often, it’s a team of champions, and not government-driven.

“In especially small cities, it’s not necessarily the mayor and council who take the lead. It does sort of come up from the community for a lot of these,” Kemp said. “You get a champion for a community center, or a champion for a library, or a champion to figure out how you can do a grocery store.”

The government also supports. The research also noted that it takes an entire community, Kemp said

“You can see two identical communities, and one does just very well because people are out there working it, and another just seems to struggle,” Kemp said. “What is going to be the challenge, the real question is, how do I get people engaged to want to do this? It literally is somebody in the community starts it, or you attract people to the community that are very motivated. That’s going to be the challenge. How do you replicate, really, those soft skills? You need someone who’s motivated to help and pursue these items.” 

Just renovating and reusing an old building is key for a small town, Mullenix said. “If they can renovate an old building and put something in that really sparks interest and people, those are huge wins.” 

And that includes old school buildings left empty by consolidation, like the Elma elementary building, a restored department store in Bancroft that’s now a popular pub and grill, or a middle school building in Sac City, the reuse of which is now under study. 

An ISU interdisciplinary class is on the front lines of trying to spark some of that community engagement. It’s led by ISU art professor Jennifer Drinkwater, a community art specialist with ISU Extension.

Her students are working with residents in Elma and Bancroft on community art projects, asking community members for ideas on what they’d like to see, complementing other initiatives like the renovation and reuse of old buildings.

“Students are really learning how to engage with communities, using art and creativity,” Drinkwater said. “With a goal of – and this kind of falls in line with Shrink Smart – having social capital is super important. People want to feel like they belong. You want to feel like you’ve got a place in the community, that you matter, that there’s a lot of community engagement on the local level. I feel like art provides another opportunity to get people involved on a local level. Especially if you do it deliberately.

The Sac County Freedom Rock sits within a veterans memorial complex that includes a Civil War statue built in 1892. (Photo by Pat Kinney / IowaWatch)

These towns already possess creativity because of a lack of resources, Drinkwater said. “It’s like, you’ve got to get scrappy when you don’t have a ton of funding or a ton of people to do all these initiatives. People are doing it because that’s their choice.”

In her own private art practice, Drinkwater has a “What’s Good?” project where she goes to towns in Iowa and her native Mississippi and does paintings based on what people tell her is good about their communities.

“It’s like journalism art,” Drinkwater said, and she writes a blog about her findings. She finds people there are motivated. “I call them ‘Yes-and …’ places,” where folks have a can-do attitude.

“And particularly Bancroft,” she said. “The way they were talking about all the events and activities. … They were totally open. They said they weren’t artsy. I said, ‘Y’all are already doing it. You’re creating these crazy, fun events, all these different cool things.’ To me, that’s art. It’s cultural. It’s fun. And you’ll get people involved. They don’t want to sit in a focus group. But they’ll totally help out with some pop-up restaurant, or some really fun Fourth of July celebration.”

She specifically cited Bancroft city Director Crysti Neuman’s initiative to engage young people in the community. “She’s got it dialed in,” Drinkwater said.

“If you can create opportunities for folks to share their experiences and have other people listen to them, that creates community, ” she said.

ISU researchers sought to find out what created that community and momentum with places like Sac City, Bancroft and Elma.

Kimberly Elman Zarecor is a professor of architecture in the College of Design at Iowa State University. She is a researcher involved in the Shrink Smart program. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

“Then the other cities can look at that and say, ‘If we want to be like that what might we need to do, change or add to achieve that?’ ” Kemp said. “It made sense, from a project standpoint, if we can discover this, we can share this. And eventually, we can shore up these smaller rural communities and make them places that people want to live in.” 

ISU researchers received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, through its “Smart and Connected Communities” program, to pursue the Shrink Smart project, with support from the League of Cities as a local community partner.

“It’s been exciting working with these cities,” League of Cities researcher Mullenix said. “When we go and talk to the communities, it comes to life. We’re in the middle of the project of creating a ‘community of communities’ ” 

The communities’ panel presentation at the League of Cities conference last September was the first step.

“To be identified as one of those (Shrink Smart) cities is one thing,” Kemp said. “I’m guessing most of them weren’t thinking, ‘We knew we were smart,’ in addressing these issues” because they were too busy with the tasks at hand to take an introspective look. 

“Once they’ve got that, they begin to look beyond their borders to say, this is really something to be replicated elsewhere.”  

While word of Shrink Smart is spreading, there remains a challenge within the Shrink Smart communities, or any community, to keeping momentum going. 

“There’s a generational question,” ISU Shrink Smart researcher and ISU architecture professor Kimberly Zarecor said, of wealth as well as human capital being passed.  

“There’s a question of how long it can be sustained in any one community; that you always have the next (leadership) person ready to go,” she said.

That next generation of leadership has to be encouraged and mentored. 

David Peters is a professor of sociology at Iowa State University. (Photo courtesy of Iowa State) Credit: Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

“It can never stop,” Zarecor said. “It can’t be left as a legacy; it always has to be an active new group that comes in. … Within 10 years, everything can change. We know this from the communities. You can have very active efforts on quality of life, lots of families with kids. You can have this completely turn over. All the kids go to college; all the older generation retire to Florida or they pass away. I think the smaller towns, unlike a city, they have this a bit more acutely, if you don’t replenish. Constantly replenish.”

Overall, with Shrink Smart, the bottom line is that population loss doesn’t define the community. Attention centers around quality of life, Zarecor said.

“These are small towns; they’re very vulnerable to people leaving,” ISU sociology professor and Shrink Smart researcher David Peters said. “If that chain of mentoring and leadership is broken, things can disappear very quickly.”

Conversely, Peters said, “Sometimes it only takes a small number of new people coming in, who are motivated, to change things around – dedicated people. In my opinion, 10 people that really care to be in that community, and care to be involved, that makes the difference sometimes.”

How 3 Iowa towns are getting smaller but smarter through Iowa State program
Elma, population 505, meets town needs

through bridge building, $1.4 million project
Generations of local leaders propel Bancroft, population 699

Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones

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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