Mason City Globe Gazette, IA
Officials worry as Iowa's rural population declines
By Dan Gearino, Globe Des Moines Bureau
— Census figures released last week put an exclamation point on years of anxiety about population loss in rural Iowa.
The problem is most severe in the quadrant west of I-35 and north of I-80. This area includes all eight counties that lost at least 5 percent of their populations between 2000 and 2005: Audubon, Calhoun, Cherokee, Ida, Kossuth, Monona,
Pocahontas and Sac.
Without enough new workers, the average age is rising in nearly every part of those counties, while school enrollment is declining.
“We have jobs here. We just need people,” said Shirley Phillips, economic development director for Sac County.
Local and state leaders are fighting to reverse the trend with a two-prong strategy. First, they are using incentive payments to attract high-wage jobs and encourage existing employers to expand. Second, they are devoting more time and money to improving recreational amenities and revitalizing main streets, in the hope of attracting more young families.
“You can’t go wrong with quality-of-life investments,” said
Iowa State University economics professor Dan Otto.
In Kossuth County, Algona Mayor Lynn Kueck spent Thursday afternoon canoeing on the East Fork Des Moines River, which runs though his city. The mayor and other city officials are looking at ways to better market the river as a recreational asset.
“If you want young people to come in to your community, you have to be able to provide the entertainment and the recreational facilities that young couples want,”
The estimated population of his county is 16,142, which dropped 5.9 percent between 2000 and 2005.
But the grim numbers belie a bright picture in the local job market, according to
Kueck. Algona is the national headquarters for Pharmacist’s Mutual Insurance
Co., which operates across the country and is growing, and has about 240 full-
time employees in the home office. The city is also home to Hydrogen Engine
Center, a growing company that builds flex-fuel engines.
The population decline in Sac County is despite years of attempts by local elected officials and businesses to deal with the problem. Phillips, the county economic development director, said the victories are small, but add up, with many companies adding a few jobs each.
“It’s not that we’re sitting on our thumbs out here,” she said.
The estimated population of Sac County is 10,621, which dropped 7.9 percent between 2000 and 2005. Only Pocahontas County lost a higher percentage of residents, with 8.5 percent.
Phillips said many of the economic challenges are because the region lacks a four-lane highway to transport goods to major cities. She is the leader of a regional group that is pushing the state to expand U.S. Highway 20 across western Iowa. The highway serves as Sac City’s main street.
The two-lane portion of U.S. 20 is a major thoroughfare in three of the slowest growing counties, Calhoun, Ida and Sac.
Rep. Clarence Hoffman, R-Charter Oak, whose district includes parts of Ida and
Monona counties, said reversing the population slide begins by attracting highwage jobs. He is co-author of the Iowa Values Fund, a 10-year program that invests about $500 million in corporate incentives, job training and university research.
“Jobs are certainly the most important thing. People aren’t going to move there if there aren’t jobs,” he said.
But Hoffman said the next step is making sure the new workers enjoy the place they live and want to raise families there. To do this, he thinks rural communities need to take a fresh look at how they might appear to outsiders and how they can provide more recreation options. He said Ida Grove, the county seat of Ida
County, as an example of a city that’s made big improvements.
Otto, the Iowa State professor, said investments in recreational amenities are the best short-term strategy for stopping the bleed of population loss.
“That’s something you can’t lose with,” he said.
Dan Gearino can be reached at 515-243-0138 and [email protected]