CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — One underlying effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increase of people moving out of big cities and closer to rural communities.
With the increasing ability to work remotely, people are finding the life outside of cities more desirable.
But those rural communities have to adapt as well.
The Iowa Rural Summit Aug. 18-20 looked to address some of the issues that face small towns. The summit was held at the Hotel Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids.
Bill Menner, the executive director for the Iowa Rural Development Council, said the summit was good for communities to see how others handled challenges and to learn how to grow the way successful communities have been able to.
“We know these rural leaders get a lot out of being together,” Menner said. “Getting to do this in person is a big deal. We can share studies and practices with people and replicate them or tweak them for their own needs.”
He said one of the biggest topics of discussion at the event was about being innovative and finding out just what a town of under 2,000 people can accomplish.
“When you have a small number of partners or workers at your disposal, it’s sometimes about what your capacity is,” Menner said. “We have towns like Stanton, Iowa, doing remarkable things. How do they do it the way other towns could do it, and what are the other towns missing to be Stanton 2.0?”
Helen Miller, a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives, served as one of the keynote speakers and focused on diversity and inclusion in small towns.
“There’s feelings that towns are not diverse enough or not welcoming enough,” she said. “People are really interested in what they can do to make them more appealing.”
She said moving to Fort Dodge in 1999 and later becoming a state representative of the area, she was able to see how welcoming a town can be. Miller said she was the first minority representative to serve on the state agriculture committee, and while others may not have the same experience, she said many of Iowa’s towns have been welcoming to her.
She said for towns looking to work on diversity and inclusion, it’s not about what they add, but rather how they welcome others.
“In my opinion, if folks want to learn about inclusivity, Fort Dodge was a great place for that,” she said. “I was included right away. Maya Angelou had a quote, and I might not get it exactly, but ‘you may forget what someone said or what someone did, but you never forget how someone made you feel.’ My words to the group were about thinking about how you made someone feel.”
Childcare has also been an issue facing rural Iowa towns, and Menner said it is a workforce issue, extending far beyond just one industry.
“One thing we discussed was how it’s one thing to build a childcare facility, but it’s another to operate it successfully,” Menner said. “What do you charge the parents or pay the staff? What does overhead look like? There were some case studies presented, and at the end of the day it comes down to ‘how do we raise the money not just for construction or rehabilitation, but for operations too?’ There are no easy answers.”
Finding labor for childcare is one of the biggest issues for small towns, said Mary Janssen, regional director of Child Care Resource and Referral of Northeast Iowa. She spoke as part of a panel on rural childcare.
“We really heard from people on the need for childcare and the need for workforce as well,” Janssen said. “Every business is kind of struggling with that. There are some cool projects going on, but what I heard loud and clear from the crowd was supporting both homes and centers. How do we recruit more?”
She is on the governor’s child care task force and said there will likely be a recommendation from them coming in the next month. She said some of the major issues have to do with compensation and benefits, as well as treating the job as a trade or apprenticeship and recruiting high school students to start training.