By Kay Snyder
An exciting and multifaceted movement to support the vitality of rural Iowa communities is gaining momentum, and electric cooperatives are helping to lead the way.
Throughout the state, many programs and initiatives are creating and raising awareness of positive things happening in rural communities. Among these are the Iowa Rural Development Council and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa initiative, both focused on contributing to the growth and health of rural Iowa.
Iowa Rural Development Council
The Iowa Rural Development Council (IRDC) was created as a part of an executive order and the ensuing Farm Bill in 1992. While the Council received federal and state funding for many years, the funding eventually dissolved, and the group operated without paid staff for more than a decade.
In 2015, a group of engaged IRDC supporters began a movement to revitalize the organization. The Iowa Area Development Group (IADG) has been an active leader from the beginning.
“Through our Iowa network of electric cooperatives and other utilities, the Iowa Area Development Group sees firsthand the challenges and opportunities of our rural communities,” states IADG President Rand Fisher. “With locally owned and operated electric cooperatives serving Iowans in all of the state’s 99 counties, they are among the best suited to help be the drivers of change.”
One of the priorities of the reenergized IRDC was to host the first-ever Iowa Rural Summit. The 2016 event, held in Jefferson, brought together more than 300 people representing more than 60 rural communities. The event sparked a resurgence of interest among rural advocates and convinced IRDC partners to revitalize the Council’s efforts to support rural development. Today, IRDC members include federal and state agencies, colleges and universities, utilities, non-profits, and business and industry.
Considerable work has been done to advance the priorities of the initial Summit. Several communities – Keosauqua, Kossuth County, Lamoni, Stanton and Greene County – adopted strategies to unify stakeholders and implement community-led change. A rural housing program stemmed from the Summit – Rural Housing 360 – a unique resource to bring new housing options to communities, especially those who cannot meet the housing needs of local businesses.
2019 Iowa Rural Summit
The third Iowa Rural Summit took place in April, with more than 350 people attending the event, including 225 people from 75 communities, associations, educational institutions, financial institutions, and regional, state and federal partners.
The Summit agenda centered around group learning, discussion and collaboration with a focus on action and implementation. Key Summit topics included leadership, high-speed broadband, housing, retail, child care, quality of life and telling the positive story of rural Iowa.
During the Summit, Gov. Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg presented $2.9 million in catalyst funding to 29 Iowa communities. The catalyst awards, also known as grants, provide $100,000 per community to assist with the rehabilitation of buildings to stimulate economic growth and reinvestment.
“Each catalyst project is unique, inspiring different types of growth and development depending on the communities where they’re located,” says Lt. Gov. Gregg.
Empower Rural Iowa
On July 18, 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order creating the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Gregg and IRDC Chair Sandy Ehrig, to identify needed legislative, regulatory and policy changes to support rural Iowa.
Three task forces – Investing, Growing and Connecting Rural Iowa – worked to generate recommendations. Iowa’s electric cooperatives along with municipal utilities and independent telecommunication company communities have been front-and-center, both by serving on and hosting the task force meetings. Gatherings were held in Winterset, Holstein, Mount Pleasant, Earlham, Maquoketa, Pella, Stanton and Sheffield.
“There is synergy happening between the Iowa Rural Development Council and the Empower Rural Iowa initiative,” says Gov. Reynolds. “It’s incredible, and it’s one of the reasons I think Iowa is experiencing a tipping point in rural development. Together, we’re building on the character of our rural communities and turning our small towns into magnets for retail, commerce, housing and tourism. I can’t say enough about the local leaders who aren’t afraid to dream big, work hard and find ways to tap into the full potential of their communities.”
Iowa’s locally owned co-ops are powering the way
Historically, rural communities could count on their locally owned anchor businesses to support initiatives necessary for the growth and vitality of their citizens. Over the years, there has been a shift in ownership. Many of these local companies are now part of larger corporations with headquarters located in another city, state or country. With the absence of these types of decision-makers rural communities, direct engagement and support are often reduced. While some of those local connections have been diminished, electric cooperatives have remained steadfast anchors of rural Iowa.
“Iowa’s electric cooperatives remain locally owned entities that are actively engaged in renewing the communities and regions they serve,” says Hollee McCormick of Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative and a member of the Empower Rural Iowa Executive Council. “Co-op directors, employees and members dedicate countless hours of volunteer work to support community activities and organizations that will enable future vitality for our small, rural areas.”
Electric co-ops also support local businesses and initiatives by bringing new money to the community through state and federal programs in addition to their own revolving loan funds. Iowa’s electric cooperatives play a vital role in powering the future of rural Iowa.
Recommendations from Empower Rural Iowa Task Forces
Investing in Rural Iowa
- Assist rural Iowa communities in obtaining housing needs assessments
- Reform the workforce housing tax credit to make it more accessible
Growing Rural Iowa
- Create an Empowered Rural Communities recognition program
- Create leadership pathways for empowered rural communities
Connecting Rural Iowa
- Optimize the existing broadband grant program
- Identify a consistent source of funding for the broadband grant program
These recommendations were delivered to Gov. Reynolds and are working their way through the Iowa General Assembly.
Kay Snyder is the director of marketing and communications for the Iowa Area Development Group.