FORT DODGE, Ia. — I was thankful that the Chicago Cubs game Tuesday evening, 360 miles away at Wrigley Field, was a rainout.
I worried that a baseball playoff on TV would distract the residents of Fort Dodge as my colleague Lynn Hicks, The Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, led a lineup of panelists at the local Opera House to brainstorm ways to improve the future of their city.
I shouldn’t have worried. About 60 people gathered from Fort Dodge and beyond, full of obvious concern for their communities. They tackled the question, “How can we revitalize Main Street Iowa?”
It’s a question we’ve been asking for decades as cities have swelled at the expense of dwindling small towns.
But the Register this year has been spending time to stop and take a fresh look at what we call “Changing Iowa.”
The yearlong series combines our published journalism on Iowa’s profound demographic changes with live events around the state (in partnership with the Iowa Rural Development Council) where we can talk face to face about these sweeping transformations.
THE REGISTER’S EDITORAIL: How the Iowa Legislature can help Main Street Iowa? Leave it alone.
Both Hicks and I have rural roots in common. We grew up in and around small towns in southwest Iowa.
But Tuesday night was focused more on “micropolitan” cities such as Fort Dodge, whose 24,400 residents fall into the midsize range of 10,000 to 50,000 population.
Statistically, these cities and their industries have felt more of a squeeze than larger urban or even smaller rural areas.
Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, sketched some of his own town’s bleak history as co-emcee alongside Hicks:
Fort Dodge’s population peaked in 1970 at 31,000, then slid to 29,000 by 1980 and to fewer than 26,000 by 1990.
As companies such as Hormel and Iowa Beef Processors pulled out, Fort Dodge lost as many as 3,000 jobs within three years.
By 1986, no new homes were being built.
More recently, Iowa’s 17 micropolitans such as Fort Dodge collectively have seen the lowest median income and highest rates of poverty and unemployment.
Yet Fort Dodge also has been rallying around plenty of signs of hope.
This is a town that still has major assets at hand, from a community college to a hospital to a second craft brewery on the way.
Plautz cited more than $1 billion in private investment in Webster County in the last four years, and a 15½ percent rise in the average wage in the last five years, along with 1,800 new jobs.
Redevelopment of the massive, century-old Warden Plaza downtown within the next few years is set to deliver 120 apartments, a fitness center and other amenities.
The city just rejoined the state’s specific Main Street Iowa program to spur more downtown revival.
Panelist Terry Lutz, CEO at McClure Engineering and a former Fort Dodge mayor, made the plea that housing should be thought of as an economic development investment no different from incentives for businesses.
A brief panel discussion soon segued into the heart of the event: Conversations among small groups that generated lists of potential solutions then presented to the room.
Lutz’s plea was amplified: The need for new and different types of housing was a common refrain — one that I’ve also heard at rural and small-town forums for years.
But many different ideas and potential collaborations rippled through the room. In one small group, representatives from Pocahontas and Calhoun counties and Polk City met each other and began to commiserate.
Another table included leaders from Webster City, Newell, Elk Horn and Fort Dodge.
A new Prestage Foods pork processing plant scheduled to open as soon as next year in neighboring Wright County triggered discussion of everything from education funding to diversity.
Is Fort Dodge (and are other cities) truly prepared to welcome a large workforce that may represent a broader array of ethnic backgrounds all at once? There was worry that local school districts lack funding and preparation for English language learning, for starters.
There also was fear that in some ways the state or federal government may hinder more than help local efforts.
Fort Dodge’s current mayor up for re-election, Matt Bemrich, cited the lingering effects of a massive cut in state commercial property taxes four years ago.
A $152 million annual “backfill” paid to cities to offset that loss in revenue is now seen in jeopardy for next year’s budget, which Bemrich said could cost his city alone more than $600,000.
Fort Dodge wrangled with such mundane yet crucial fiscal issues.
They talked about quality of life for young single people in town. They considered how serious investment in the arts must be met with patience for no obvious short-term payoff.
They took the time to be there for each other, and it was heartening to watch unfold.
The next “Changing Iowa” tour stop is Oct. 26 in Marshalltown, where we’ll tackle yet another nagging question: “How can we welcome new Iowans to our communities?”
There’s isn’t only one answer, and that’s why I hope to meet you there.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or [email protected] See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
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