COALVILLE, Iowa – Ask people who live in Coalville if they see a need to incorporate this town of 651 residents southeast of Fort Dodge.
They’ll say no.
Doing so would mean setting up city government with, at minimum, a city council.
“We have all the services and amenities that we want,” Webster County Supervisor Chairman Mark Campbell, who lives between Coalville and Otho, said. “And, we can easily run in (to Fort Dodge) and, yet, get to go home and relax with a country setting.”
The lack of city government has not lessened interest in living in Coalville. Fact is, some people in town say they think it is one of the reasons Coalville bucks the trend of other small Iowa towns losing residents. IowaWatch spent four months investigating small towns that are bucking declining trends in rural America. Instead, some communities are growing, finding success on Main Street, and growing a sense of community.
Coalville’s population of 651 in the 2020 census was up 6.7% from 610 residents in 2010, data released in August shows. Its population is counted as a census-designated place, which is an unincorporated area with a significant concentration of residents.
Campbell said more people are welcome. “It’s a great opportunity for people to come and experience, kind of, the hybrid country-urban living,” he said.
Coalville is a collection of well-kept middle-class homes a few miles southeast of Fort Dodge, past the gypsum and mineral plants that provide jobs and some of Fort Dodge’s identity. The town was named after the chief industry at its founding in the 1870s, coal mining.
The town’s appeal includes close proximity to jobs in Fort Dodge and nearby Webster City, being located on the four-lane U.S. Highway 20 and having to pay county taxes but no municipal taxes. Coalville has a church, a hydraulic repair business, a reception barn and the town’s unofficial hub, the Stop & Shop gas station and convenience store.
People can buy groceries, lunch and gas at the store, although you have to pay inside instead of at the pump.
Kris Stringer, Stop & Shop’s owner, said she worked part-time at the store many years ago before buying it in 2011. “I enjoy the public and the people,” she said.
The Webster County Sheriff’s Office, Board of Supervisors and, important as the town grows, County Planning and Zoning Commission, provide public safety, local government and zoning decisions for Coalville.
The town’s average household income is $63,507, which is close to the state’s median of $60,523, and the median house is worth $131,000, a little less than the state’s $147,800 median, data compiled by World Population Review and the U.S. Census Bureau show. The town’s median age is 33.8 years old, younger than the 38.1 for the state.
Area farmer and housing developer Mike Pearson sees opportunity in Coalville. He has built seven homes there since 2017 on property he has farmed.
Pearson’s decision to build in Coalville instead of Fort Dodge boiled down to a simple reason. “I had the ground,” he said. He also has built in Eagle Grove and Fort Dodge and is building three homes in nearby Badger, population 522 and down from 561 in 2010.
People have bid quickly on the homes, which are ranch style in the $220,000 to $350,000 price range, he said. “I found I could have built, probably, 20 more units and they would have been sold. I’m getting calls all the time, people wanting to know if I have anything open.”
Pearson continues to farm in Coalville but he and a brother would like to add a 44-unit development east of his farm, on land where the brother lives. Campbell, the Webster County supervisor chairman, said a plat sent to the county would place homes overlooking the Des Moines River.
Pearson said he hasn’t applied with the county to start the project and construction is not scheduled, although he is aiming to start by the end of this year.
“We need to keep people in these towns that have skilled workers, to keep our towns alive,” Pearson said. “You’re always going to have your ag part of your communities in Iowa, of course. But, then, you take away the ag and there’s not a ton left.”
IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.