BELMOND, Iowa – Rob and Melissa Arnold are emerging from the pandemic of the past year and a half. Instead of waiting it out, the Arnolds took advantage of the opportunity to retool and renovate their restaurant, Sugarpie Bakery & Cafe. The restaurant reopened again to dine-in business in late July. The Arnolds could have reopened sooner. But buoyed by Melissa’s skills with wedding cakes and bakery items, they made ends meet on carryout business and took their time to do the renovation the way they wanted it.
While local incentives can bring businesses to small Iowa towns, they are no guarantee that the town can be vital or bring visitors, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation of towns with fewer than 5,000 people showed. The reasons vary.
With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A selected collection of downtown or main street photos taken in Iowa’s small towns in summer 2021 for “Small Town Solution,” an IowaWatch report on how these towns try to remain vital while losing population. A handful of small Iowa towns with populations of less than 5,000 and not part of a larger metro area, bucked the trend and grew their populations in the 2020 census data just released. Growing small towns have one or more factors working in their favor, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation revealed for this special report. Photos by Lyle Muller, except for Belmond, La Porte City, Denver and Parkersburg, which are by Pat Kinney. THE LATEST STORY: HIGH HURDLES EXIST FOR IOWA’S HOMEGROWN, SMALL-TOWN BUSINESSES
READ THE FIRST STORY HERE: HOW A HANDFUL OF IOWA TOWNS THRIVE, RISE ABOVE RURAL DECLINE
A handful of small Iowa towns with 5,000 or fewer people and not part of a larger metro area bucked the trend in the 2020 census and grew their populations. These towns grew populations at a time when the 2020 census showed Iowa’s urban population growing to 64% of the state’s 3.16 million people. The share of urban dwellers in Iowa was near 61% in both 2010 and 2000, 58% in 1990, and 57% in 1980. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A four-month IowaWatch investigation that included visits to 58 towns of 5,000 or fewer people turned up examples of growing rural communities. One of those growing in population isn’t even incorporated, but counted, none the less, by the U.S. Census Bureau.
HUMESTON, Iowa – Terrie and Tom Woods enjoy road trips to small Midwest towns and their locally owned stores, which explains why the retired Sherwood, Arkansas, couple ended up in Humeston in mid-May. “We just like small towns,” Terrie Woods said about being eight-and-a-half hours away from home and searching through Civil War-themed fabric at Snips of Thread Quilt Shop and The Yarn Pantry. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A group of downtown shop owners in this southern Iowa town of 465 people love stories like that. They see it as a sign that their efforts are working when collaborating to make Humeston a vibrant place, even though the town lost population in the 2020 census from the 494 counted in the 2010 census.
“Our businesses work well together to promote Humeston,” Leigh Ann Coffey, a local real estate agent, said. “We’re not in competition with each other.”
Their pitch: good products, good service and the charm of small-town shops.
DENVER, Iowa – The Bremer County community of Denver, which has dubbed itself “The Mile Wide City,” in contrast to its altitudinally enhanced Colorado counterpart, had quite a mountain to climb out of the pandemic, business, school and community leaders said. But it climbed out. “Denver was fortunate,” said Gene Leonhart, a former longtime mayor, who still serves on the city Planning and Zoning Commission. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
Leonhart and others who were interviewed for the IowaWatch project, “Small Town Solutions,” said the city had a lot going for it headed into the pandemic. IowaWatch spent four months checking into towns that buck the declining trend of other rural areas and show signs of a growing population, a strong sense of community, activities and schools.
Voters in the Denver Community School District, on the cusp of that pandemic, approved a bond referendum for a new high school and middle school building — just a few years after building a new community recreation, arts and events center, called the Cyclone Center, so named after the school teams’ mascot.
Some Ankeny parents are frustrated after receiving a letter Wednesday night that the Ankeny Community School District will not require students to quarantine if they have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
“At this time, our public health authorities have informed us that the district may not quarantine students,” said the letter from Erick Pruitt, who began as district superintendent in July. “We will continue to collaborate with the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Polk County Health Department to ensure our actions are aligned with their direction. We recognize that this guidance is subject to change. Please refer to the Iowa Department of Public Health for the most recent guidance.”
Ankeny is the sixth-largest district in the state with more than 12,000 students and 2,285 employees, according to the district website. LaKeshia Richmond of Ankeny is a mother of three children.
Barbara Lee of Council Bluffs took her daughter to Lake Manawa State Park’s playground in the early 1990s. Now she’s able to watch her granddaughter play in an updated version in Dreamland Park. The 18,000-square-foot playground, which opened in 2018, cost $1.3 million to produce. More than 1,200 volunteers from ages 3 to 88 took part in making the project possible; it replaced a wooden playground from 1992. A team of civic leaders drove the million-dollar mission, obtaining several $100,000 grants and assisting in construction.
Lilly Olson was pregnant when dealing with hospital patients suffering from COVID-19, and at a time when healthcare professionals were climbing a learning curve for treating the people with the virus. She feared for what the virus could do to her family, including her unborn child.