BELMOND, Iowa – Rob and Melissa Arnold are emerging from the pandemic of the past year and a half.
Instead of waiting it out, the Arnolds took advantage of the opportunity to retool and renovate their restaurant, Sugarpie Bakery & Cafe.
The restaurant reopened again to dine-in business in late July.
The Arnolds could have reopened sooner. But buoyed by Melissa’s skills with wedding cakes and bakery items, they made ends meet on carryout business and took their time to do the renovation the way they wanted it.
“We lost a lot of business because of the pandemic, but we’re here for the long haul,” Rob said in May.
Local city and economic development leaders made sure the Arnolds and other small businesses would indeed be around for the long haul through the pandemic.
Some rural communities, like Belmond, are thriving despite declining populations, IowaWatch learned during a four-month reporting project. Leaders coming together was a common theme in visits to 58 communities of 5,000 residents or fewer. Belmond has a population of 2,463, according to the most recent census. That’s down from the 2010 population of 2,560.
In the city in Wright County, it took a combination of efforts from local businesses supporting one another to support from several funds.
A key effort was the Belmond Growth Alliance, said Darrel Steven Carlyle, who served as the city’s administrator during the pandemic. He became the Wright County economic development director in August.
“We established a COVID relief fund here in Belmond for local businesses during the pandemic,” Carlyle said. “We awarded approximately $73,000 to Belmond businesses during the pandemic. That’s tremendous for this size of a community.”
It was the result of the alliance, a merger of the city’s chamber of commerce and industrial development organizations, with offices at City Hall.
The assistance fund was set up as the COVID shutdown hit many businesses in March and April 2020. There were two award cycles, with up to $5,000 per business.
“I’m convinced without that funding, we would have lost businesses who could not have kept their doors open,” Carlyle said.
The funding came mainly from a couple of local foundations. “We are blessed to have the Richard O. Jacobson Fund,” Carlyle said. Approximately $50,000 came from that fund, and the balance came from the Luick Memorial Trust Fund, supported by a prominent local agricultural family.
Jacobson, who died in 2016, grew up Belmond, founded a successful namesake shipping and logistics firm in Des Moines and was a well-known benefactor to all three of Iowa’s state universities. His foundation awarded the community $5 million for the city of Belmond, the interest from which was to be used for community projects.
The $50,000 helped during COVID.
“The ones we were really focusing on were the ones that were impacted most by the government shutdown — the bars, the restaurants, the small businesses,” Carlyle said.
One such business was Sugarpie Cafe and Bakery.
The Arnolds bought space in downtown Belmond, where Rob was raised, in the city’s signature downtown “arcade,” installed after a devastating 1966 tornado. Sugarpie Bakery & Café opened Sept. 5, 2014.
The renovation work done during the pandemic includes a restoration of the restaurant’s original tin ceiling and brick walls, considerably opening up dining and customer counter space. It’s not only their place of business, but their home. They have roomy upstairs living space to accommodate their two young daughters, ages 8 and 5 — and a small dog to boot.
They spent about $80,000 to $100,000 to set up the restaurant and another $15,000 on the current refurbishing, also relying on some in-kind work from family.
The pandemic offered the opportunity, Rob said.
They have no employees. “It’s a team. It’s a lot of work. We do everything,” he said.
The Arnolds do special events and fundraisers for local projects, like a dog park. The Arnolds also were fortunate in that they paid off their building loan before the pandemic.
The renovation went a different direction when Rob began piano lessons. They brought a piano into the restaurant, more or less for decor.
“I was sitting there looking at it and said, ‘I want to learn how to play it,’ ” Rob said. “I’ve had probably a year of lessons. If it’s not too terribly busy, there’s a chance that I’ll come play you a song after I make your food and take it out to your table.”
As to any advice he’d give others, Rob said, “Keep your head up and keep trying.” He added, “Cut costs if you can. Don’t spend money if you don’t have to.
“I’m a cheap b—–d,” he added with a smirk.
Meanwhile, for Jewel and Joe McFarland of the Belmond Drive-In, the window of opportunity was, literally, the establishment’s drive-up window.
They found that in a pandemic, when the going gets tough, the tough get ice cream.
“We saw a drop in customers, obviously, but not as much as most customers, because we had the window,” Jewel McFarland said. “So we always had carryout. There was one week when we were exposed to COVID that we had to close.” An employee tested positive but showed no symptoms.
“We are year-round with the drive through,” she said. “We did see a drop in tourists, travelers.”
The McFarlands bought the business in 2014. Before COVID, the establishment already weathered a major manufacturer closing — the Irish-owned Eaton Corp. engine valve manufacturing plant closed its doors in 2020. The closing was announced to the plant’s 182 employees in June 2019.
The nearly 40-year-old plant had employed up to 1,000 workers in the early 1980s.
Belmond city administrator Carlyle said the Belmond Growth Alliance has been working with Eaton and a Des Moines real estate broker to market the building for potential reuse.
“What we’re trying to focus on is to continue to maintain employment growth, and the valuation of those buildings,” Carlyle said. The company was a big sewer and water user, which adversely affected the city budget and prompted sewer rate increases for residents.
In addition to marketing the Eaton building, the Belmond Growth Alliance is working to fill a 10,000-square-foot speculation or “spec” building it built on the south end of town in hopes of attracting an industrial tenant. It was built about 15 years ago.
Besides those two projects, the Belmond Growth Alliance also promoted local businesses during the pandemic through gift card promotions, procured and subsidized in part by private donations. Businesses promoted each other just by word of mouth.
“We did have more local people come in to support, because they wanted to make sure we were able to stay open,” Jewel McFarland said. “We had several people say that.”
It was one of the most challenging times the McFarlands have faced. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, if we were going to be shut down again,” Joe said. “Half the people were scared to death, half weren’t. If we wouldn’t have had that (drive-up) window, we would have been in trouble.”
Jewel also made arrangements so customers could order and pay by card online, Joe said, to minimize person-to person contact, other than through the window.
“Business wise, we were down probably about 30 percent overall,” during the pandemic, Joe McFarland said. “We’ve been pretty busy this year, compared to two years ago.”
Asked for advice, Jewel McFarland said, “Just keep at it. Advertise. We use Facebook all the time. Online ordering helps a lot, too.”
Online sales and marketing through social media – something that might have been unheard of about a decade ago — also sustained businesses through a state-ordered pandemic shutdown. Such was the case at the Arnolds’ restaurant and at the Emporium furniture and antique shop in a former grocery store space on East Main Street in downtown Belmond. Owners Laura Kiefer and Scott Johnson have operated it for just under four years.
“We were only closed for a month. But it was tough, because nobody was going out,” Kiefer said. “Everybody was doing everything online. We did a lot of holiday sales, but not enough to make up the difference. Our eBay sales were up, because people were staying home and shopping,” she said.
In-store foot traffic began recovering in the fall of 2020, with folks wearing masks. “We did okay during the holiday season, but things didn’t really start picking up until February,” Laura Kiefer said. “Actually we had better traffic in the wintertime because people come in and get warm and walk around. And there was nothing else to do.”
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The pandemic did not make her regret starting the business. “We knew it was going to hurt,” she said. But she made things work through online sale and a U.S. Small Business Administration loan.
But the pandemic did allow them to make one significant improvement to the building — they added heat. The building had been a grocery store and compressors that ran the refrigerators had kept the building warm.
They also maintained steady business from estate sales and sales for people downsizing for moving into assisted living or other situations.
Like the other businesses, Kiefer tried to cross-promote similar or other businesses in town during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, she was pulling business from as far away as Missouri — business which has not yet recovered. Kiefer said the store still has its following and its regulars.
Former Belmond city manager Carlyle noted that the Emporium and Belmond Drive-in also benefited from the Belmond Growth Alliance’s COVID aid, as did the Arnolds with Sugarpie Cafe & Bakery.
“My first concern was to keep the current businesses operating, but yet to continue to market and to use our tools here for the Eaton building and for the spec building,” he said.
Good broadband is also in place, Carlyle said. After creating a municipal communications utility was considered, city and business leaders called on Communication One Network of nearby Kanawha.
“We are now fully fibered in the community of Belmond. Every single resident had the option to hook up to fiber through Comm1. It’s huge,” Carlyle said. “It was a win-win-win for everyone.”
DATABASE: 2020 POPULATION LOSS/GAIN OF EVERY IOWA TOWN
WITH FEWER THAN 5,000 PEOPLE
The city also is trying to help meet housing demand by acquiring a three-block area for the development of 11 lots, Carlyle said. The first will be built by Homes for Iowa, the house-building program based at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, where inmates build homes at the facility for delivery on the development site.
Also, to accommodate working families, the city is working with two nonprofit organizations to locate a child care center in the 15,300-square-foot former Ramsay Elementary School site, now being renovated for that purpose. It will accommodate 150 kids and employ 24 people full time.
“We found out we simply do not have enough (day care) slots in the community to keep employees at their jobs,” Carlyle said of a 2019 survey. The need was compounded by the closure of three home-based day care operations, at least one which was related to the pandemic.
“It’ll be Colts Corner Day Care,” Carlyle said, playing off the Belmond-Klemme High School athletics nickname, the Broncos. The city solicited state and federal grants and funding from the Jacobson and Luick foundations.
“So we’re dealing with day care; we’re dealing with housing, we’re dealing with the spec building and obviously, trying to retain our existing businesses,” Carlyle said, through moves like creating a self-supported municipal improvement property taxing district for the downtown area.
Those are big projects, but the smaller ones go a long way too, Carlyle said. “I wanted to have flower baskets in our downtown area.” They were put out in the spring — a Future Farmers of America project through a new greenhouse at Belmond-Klemme High School.
Julie Hegge became director of the Belmond Growth Alliance in January.
“We are doing a lot of things as far as Belmond pride goes. We are focused on trying to promote Belmond as a whole,” she said. That includes a monthly summer market in the city park. The city also enjoyed a huge turnout for its annual Fourth of July celebration, which attracted visitors from as far away as Duluth, Minn.
“We saw more people participate in all the Fourth of July events than we had in the past,” Hegge said. “I think it’s just, people are so excited. After a year of being locked down and not being able to see people, everyone wants to be social again.”
The Belmond Growth Alliance also initiated a “yard of the month” program, a competitive award program, Hegge and Carlyle said. The winner, chosen by a committee, gets recognition with a sign in the yard and “Belmond Bucks” redeemable at businesses in town who are alliance member-investors.
“The community’s humming over that. And we’re seeing the improvements,” Carlyle said. “It’s interesting how little programs like that can make a big difference.”
READ MORE: HOW A HANDFUL OF IOWA TOWNS THRIVE, RISE ABOVE RURAL DECLINE
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.