PARKERSBURG, Iowa – After a killer tornado in 2008 and the murder of a beloved community leader a year later, many folks in Parkersburg felt they could take just about any punch thrown at them.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. It claimed lives and took a bite at businesses.
But as was the case with those prior tragedies, the people of Parkersburg weren’t about to be defined by this latest challenge.
Instead they defined themselves by what they would do to overcome — support one another.
The pandemic was a different challenge. It was more insidious than the May 25, 2008, tornado that claimed six lives in the city and two in neighboring New Hartford. It was less shocking than the 2009 shooting death of Aplington-Parkersburg High School Football Coach Ed Thomas.
The pandemic claimed, over the course of a year, roughly as many lives as the tornado. While the pandemic didn’t do property damage, it stalled businesses just the same, under a state-ordered shutdown.
The town persevered. Parkersburg had several efforts in place that allowed it to fight its way through, including a strong sense of community. This is a common trait among small towns despite trends of rural decline. IowaWatch spent four months examining what’s behind the success of thriving towns with 5,000 or fewer residents. This included visits to 58 small towns that are bucking declining population trends. These towns rely on commitment from residents, businesses banding together, a mix of state and local funding, strong schools and a sense of community, IowaWatch found.
While many rural towns suffer from declining populations, Parkersburg grew. It had 2,015 residents in 2020 compared to 1,870 in 2010, according to Census data. IowaWatch’s project looked at communities gaining population but also those that had strong main streets and other traits leading to success.
In Parkersburg, these traits include invested leaders and volunteers, strong schools, and that strong community.
Take John Luhring, for example. When a longtime local hardware store closed after 45 years, Luhring, built a business plan and started his own hardware store in early 2018. Two years later, the pandemic hit. The store remained open, deemed an essential business.
The store thrived, as people limited their travel to nearby larger cities and kept their commerce closer to home.
Luhring, buoyed by his success, bought gift cards from several local businesses, including some shuttered during the pandemic. He gave those cards away to his customers, encouraging them to patronize those local businesses – if not immediately, then when they were able to reopen as conditions related to the pandemic improved.
“Last year, during the pandemic, because so many businesses were forced to be shut down, I just felt so blessed that I was able to be open. I started with a local hair salon. I literally took cash from our business, and I gave it to the local hair salon and said ‘Give me a gift certificate.’ ”
He didn’t stop there. Car dealerships, the grocery store. Then others started doing it. “For me, it was just a ‘pay it forward,’” Luhring said.
“Which is one thing I love to do – support the community, and give back what they’ve given me.”
Luhring’s parents run a monument company and his brother is the city administrator. He barely had time for conversation during a visit in May – a fair indication his neighbors’ “shop local” buying patterns during the pandemic had remained.
As Luhring has witnessed, buying patterns may have permanently altered to the benefit of local businesses, said Dan Bruns, a local banker and member of the city council.
“During the pandemic, people were scared to go to big-box stores; they were scared to go to big grocery stores” in nearby larger communities, Bruns said.
“One of the challenges we faced with local businesses was getting people to shop locally. The pandemic has changed that, from the hardware store, from the grocery store, you can get the same things here and you don’t have to drive. People need to recognize that every dollar that’s spent in this community is a dollar that stays here,” he said.
Those decisions also generate local sales tax revenues benefiting local government services.
Similarly, community projects and initiatives continued, Bruns said. Fundraising and work persisted on Diamonds and Fields, a disability-accessible recreation complex years, which has drawn the attention of the Variety Club of Iowa.
Bruns said people in his town possess a quality, which, while not unique, is hard won.
“It’s grit,” he said. “We learned a lot. We learned a lot after the tornado. Some things are out of your control. The pandemic’s the same way. You do what you need to do to be safe, and try to help people as much as you can,” he said.
That included, first, making sure public safety personnel were safe. “And as the year went on, we tried to – while life wasn’t normal – we tried to keep as close to normal as we could, given the parameters that were given by the governor.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds in March 2020 shut down schools and limited some business. The first cases of the coronavirus in Iowa were recorded March 8, 2020.
Parkersburg kept the public library open to check out items, even if people couldn’t linger inside. In the summer, that meant keeping pools open on a limited basis, with advance signup for a limited number of kids at a time in two-hour shifts.
Organized athletic teams were canceled, despite a relatively new athletic complex.
At the bank, Bruns said, while walk-in business was closed, the staff reached out to customers.
A holiday open house and senior customers’ social clubs stopped gathering during the pandemic.
“For some people, coming into the bank and talking to someone for five or 10 minutes while making a deposit could be their only communication with the outside world. If you take that away because of the pandemic … there’s just some things that we needed to do. We tried to be as proactive as we could.”
The bank also processed more than $2 million in Paycheck Protection Plan loans for businesses.
“I think we had an economic impact on those who were impacted,” he said. “I think it goes back to neighbors helping neighbors. That’s what we did after the tornado. And I hate for Parkersburg to always be associated with that tornado. But it’s going to be. EF-5, half the town destroyed. We learned a lot of things from that.”
He continued: “We’ve seen tragedy, we’ve seen crises, we’ve seen obstacles that others maybe haven’t. And again, it’s a testimonial to our grit,” Bruns said. “I don’t want to say the pandemic was easy. Because it wasn’t. But it was definitely easier than a tornado.”
Parkersburg City Administrator Chris Luhring, said that, while those prior challenges may have led to some initial overconfidence in facing the pandemic, it revealed how alike residents are.
“In the end, folks were very supportive of the decisions we had to make, and they were very supportive of our local businesses.”
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.