SAC CITY – This city is home to the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball, but there’s more than that popping in Sac City.
The city initiated a successful streetscape project, renovated a former school building into a community center recreation complex and has some rolling North Raccoon River Valley topography that lends itself to some picturesque recreational trails. It is a county-seat community with several agricultural-based industries, some classic older homes and a historic Chautauqua campground featuring the only Chautauqua building left in the state, constructed in 1908.
The community also has been able to secure a major grant to study a possible re-use of a building that will no longer house a middle school after this academic year.
Sac City is a town that, as the saying goes, has some “good bones” to build on. And it has a broad base of leadership open to new ideas and willing to take a multipronged approach to make, as another saying goes, everything old new again.
This is a community that declined in population from 2,220 in 2010 to 2,063 in 2020 and lost a third of its population since the 1980s.
It’s the town’s accomplishments, and overall positive outlook of its residents despite its shrinking population, that caught the attention of Iowa State University researchers who identified Sac City as one of the state’s six “Shrink Smart” communities. Residents responding to annual ISU surveys in those towns reported a significant increase in the quality of life over time. ISU researchers went to those communities to see what residents are doing to improve the quality of life and if it can be applied to other towns. IowaWatch visited Bancroft, Elma and Sac City as part of a series on the program and its impact on quality of rural life.
Sac City’s grant writing success and ability to maintain many services are key to the quality of life residents enjoy there.
“They’re able to access resources beyond the typical resources. The town functions similar to a large community,” ISU professor and Shink Smart researcher Kimberly Zarecor said.
While the town has seen the fruits of its labor within the past decade, it was a slow climb, against a tide of ebbing population.
“The farm crisis is what spurred this down period, not just in Sac City,” said banker Steve Irwin.
He points back to when Lear Siegler’s Noble ag equipment manufacturing division closed its plant in Sac City in 1982. The town has lost a net 1,000 people since then. In fact a 2000 Time magazine article carried the headline, “Sac City Fights for Survival.” The article deemed the town, as Irwin said, emblematic of many of ills befalling rural communities since the 1980s farm crisis and recession.
“Now, population has continued to drop,” he acknowledged. “Before you can grow, you have to stop the decline. I don’t think we’re far from that.”
City Council member Bruce Perry, a member of the executive board of the Iowa League of Cities, which represents 870 towns, said, “The farm crisis in the ’80s was critical, but the decline in family size was huge also, just because you have fewer people from whom to draw. If you have families of six or eight, chances are better one of two of them will stick around than if you had families of one or two or three.”
Brandy Ripley, executive director of Sac Economic & Tourism Development, said her grandmother’s family had 14 children, compared with two in her own – she and her brother.
Despite the continued trickling population decline, economically the town’s on an upswing. “Now I’d have to say it’s a boom,” Irwin said.
“I moved back here 10 years ago” Ripley said. “My perspective is, 2012 to 2014, the town had a feeling like it was changing in a positive way. I’d say I really felt like I started seeing it in 2015, when we had the façade project ,where we restored some buildings. You started seeing some really positive things.”
The facade project was funded through a $500,000 federal Community Development Block Grant. Some 20 storefronts were involved.
“I felt around ’13 there were a lot of empty storefronts downtown, and things looked pretty bad,” Ripley said. “I think that just makes everybody get geared up and want to make things look better.”
That project spurred other businesses to make improvements.
“You get synergies with that, whenever you do something like that,” Irwin said.
In Sac City’s case, the work led to $5.7 million community beautification and improvement gift from the estate of longtime resident John Criss, a bachelor of a multi-generation community family. The Criss family operated Chief Clothing store on Main Street. Criss died in 2015 at age 88. He was council member Perry’s next-door neighbor.
“Sometimes there are just fortuitous things that happen that just change the direction,” Perry said. “The stars line up and some communities get a break and some don’t. That would be a situation, I believe, where Sac City got a break.“
And in January, the Sac Development Corp., of which Perry, Irwin and Ripley all are board members, received a $20,000 Iowa Economic Development Authority grant for a feasibility study for reuse of the to-be-shuttered middle school building and adjacent green space.
The funding came from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa Initiative. Perry wrote the grant application and the development corporation raised an additional $10,000 in local matches for the study. Architects and engineers began touring the school in late January.
The community has been successful in reusing buildings, particularly schools. When the community built a new elementary school years ago, local residents converted a portion of the old elementary building into the Sac Community Center. It has a full-size gymnasium, the first and oldest continuously operating indoor school pool in the state of Iowa, exercise equipment, a children’s playground, meeting rooms and other activities.
The pool will mark its 100th anniversary in 2024 and the center’s board secured a grant for an architectural study last fall to preserve the historic building and plan for future needs.
While Perry and Irwin said there was a point where some in town deemed the situation hopelessr, Ripley said there was still work going on.
“It’s easy to see change but you never see what goes on behind the scenes with people trying to make change happen in a community,” she said. “And that takes time. “
Even before the facade project, Ripley said, positives included quality child care and the coming of VT Industries, a counter top manufacturer headquartered in nearby Holstein. The operation located in the former Lear Siegler/Noble manufacturing building in the late 1990s. Roughly 100 people work there.
“It was a bit fortuitous, but it happened,” Perry said. “People worked at it, a business came and it’s been very good for the city.”
Another success is Loring Hospital, a “critical access” rural hospital affiliated with UnityPoint Health, and ranked in the top 100 in the country by a national rural care consulting organization. The hospital is marking its 80th anniversary this year.
Perry said, it’s been helpful for the hospital adding or expanding services in the past several years.
There is also Oak Terrace, an independent living senior facility, and Park View Rehabilitation Center.
“So we’ve got a pretty good complement of medical facilities. We have dentists, chiropractors, eye doctors,” said Perry. “So in some ways, people are seeing this as a place where, maybe you can come and retire and have most of your physical needs met.”
The same is true for retail needs. “Besides men’s clothing, for the most part, you don’t have to go out of town” to shop, Ripley said.
The demand for real estate and housing has increased, she said.
“When I moved back here there were a lot of houses on the market,” Ripley said.
Listings are scarce now. Some people shopping online from out of town found bargains and opted for a small-town lifestyle.
“What we started to see after COVID is, we had some large Victorian homes on the market for some time. One family came from Tennessee, the Nashville area, for a different quality of life.”
And, for people who can work online from anywhere, there’s strong internet service. “That’s a big selling factor,” said Ripley.
Sac City is also relatively close to other towns, between Storm Lake and Carroll, with Fort Dodge and Sioux City an hour or less away.
“People are realizing they can choose where to live and work from there,” Perry said, “other than saying ‘I’ve got to go where there’s a job.’
“Human capital is probably our greatest need at this point,” Perry said. That doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a shortage of volunteers.
One example was when the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa made Sac City an overnight spot in 2021. “We needed 400 volunteers and we got them,” Irwin said.
Matched with a need for more “human capital,” though, is a need for more space for people to live.
“We’ve had a focus on housing here for about two years. You can start feeling it. It’s picking up some steam,” Irwin said.
Some families are now willing to sell land for development with the passing of previous generations of landowners. More could happen eventually to the north, toward four-lane U.S. Highway 20, which opened in about 2012, Ripley said.
The county and city also have taken the lead in marketing the old highway’s path through town as a historic route.
“Sac County was the first county in the state to agree to do historic Highway 20 and we have four communities that it runs through,” she said. “We just got state approval of that route last year,” after five years of work. The Iowa Department of Transportation officially approved the Iowa Historic Route 20 Auto Trail on Jan. 28, 2021.
With the exception of heavy truck traffic no longer rumbling through town, vehicle traffic through town has been maintained since the new relocated highway opened.
“In fact we just got an Iowa tourism grant so we’re redoing the billboards out on (U.S. Highways) 71 and 20” east and north of town,” Perry said. “We have, to be honest, used the billboards to drive people to the Popcorn Ball.”
“Whatever gets them here,” Ripley said, smiling.
“The title of the grant proposal was ‘Sac City: Beyond the Popcorn Ball,’ Perry said, laughing. “So when we get to the Popcorn Ball, we will have a kiosk – and it’ll happen this summer — with QR (smartphone scanning) codes on it that say, ‘Here. You want to see public art? We’ll send directions to your phone.’ Or, ‘You want to go shopping? We’ll send directions to your phone.’ ‘You want to see parks? You want to see trails? We’ll take you there.’ Once they’re here, once they’ve been to the Popcorn Ball, one of the things we need to do is leverage what we’ve got.”
It’s all part of a beefed-up community marketing program, supported by local businesses and individual contributors.
“Promoting what’s here is really key,” Perry said.
The town even “reinvented” the popcorn ball in 2016 — for the fourth time. The city, home to Noble Popcorn, built the first one in 1995 to celebrate its popcorn industry, and built a new one each time another locale tried to wrest the distinction away in the Guinness Book of World Records.
When city leaders discovered the Indiana State Fair built a bigger one in 2016, they imploded their old one and started over.
The Sac Economic & Tourism Development webpage reports, “Hundreds of volunteers of all ages came out to help create the new popcorn ball, many climbed the six foot ladder next to the mold to get their chance at stomping down the hot kernels.” They were popped in 60-pound batches.
Sac City produced a popcorn ball that is 12 feet tall and tipped the Iowa Department of Transportation official scales at more than 9,300 pounds.
Proof positive that Sac City is a town used to doing some heavy lifting.
READ ALL STORIES IN THE SHRINK SMART SERIES:
How 3 Iowa towns are getting smaller but smarter through Iowa State program
Generations of local leaders propel Bancroft, population 699
Elma, population 505, meets town needs through bridge building, $1.4 million project
Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones
Iowa’s shrinking towns could be state, regional mentors
Pat Kinney is a longtime Iowa journalist who previously was a reporter and editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet focused on investigative journalism and educating young journalists. 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.