BANCROFT – The city of Bancroft, called “the garden spot of Iowa” for almost 90 years, may not be growing in population. But like a good perennial plant with solid roots, it is regenerating and flowering. Located in northern Kossuth County in north-central Iowa about 20 miles south of the Minnesota state line, Bancroft has a population of 699 residents, according to 2020 Census data, down from 732 in 2010. It’s who makes up that 699 number that matters. Bancroft has an eclectic mix of new, longtime and returning residents.
Some Iowa towns may be shrinking in population, but they may have an impact on other communities in Iowa and beyond. Officials with the Iowa League of Cities and researchers with Iowa State University say a handful – dwindling but proactively maintaining and improving their quality of life – are raising eyebrows and may be pathfinders for other communities to follow. Colleagues have already reached some to find out what those towns are doing right, said Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, an advocacy and training group for 850 Iowa member cities. Alan Kemp is the executive director of the Iowa League of Cities. “It was sort of interesting to look at this idea of shrinking smart,” Kemp said.
ELMA – This town is all about building bridges – even though you normally won’t find an expanse of water much wider than Mead Creek on the northwest edge of town. There’s one covered bridge, an old rail head viaduct over Main Street that is now part of a recreational trail. That has now become a community symbol, a motif of what this Howard County community of a little more than 500 is trying to accomplish. In fact, the name of the town’s nonprofit community betterment organization is The Bridge Inc. It’s a coalition of people that have put together a community complex project now underway in a closed elementary school building. Elma is one of a handful of Iowa communities involved in Shrink Smart, an Iowa State University research project begun in 2017 that examines how towns with decreasing populations keep their quality of life.
Wanting to know their new state after moving to Iowa in 2014, Dave and Karen Miglin and their two children went to the Field of Dreams movie site outside of Dyersville in northeast Iowa.
Dave Miglin had moved from Atlanta ahead of the family the previous year for his job as media and digital vice president for Strategic America in West Des Moines. Sitting at Iowa’s famous baseball field in a farm field, his son, Evan, was asking questions. “He was, like, curious to know what I was going to see next,” Miglin, 53, said. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
“Next” became visits to every incorporated town and city in Iowa over five years. Iowa had 955 incorporated towns when he started his quest.
Iowans who spend time working on small-town vitality in the state say small, rural communities will not survive urban flight without taking risks or community leaders willing to take them. “I have concerns that places that want to grow are doing it based on a strategy of stand-pat-edness, I guess,” Bill Menner, a former Obama administration U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development director for Iowa, said. “If you think you can grow your community by staying the same, you’re probably not going to grow your community,” Menner, of Grinnell, said in an interview for an IowaWatch series, Small Town Solutions. He is executive director of the Iowa Rural Health Association. The IowaWatch series reported that Iowa towns with fewer than 5,000 people but remaining vital, despite losing population in some instances, benefitted from one or more factors that included: creative businesses, updated infrastructure, readily available health care, child care, the arts, recreation, a sense of being safe, strong local schools and a sense of community pride.
PARKERSBURG, Iowa – After a killer tornado in 2008 and the murder of a beloved community leader a year later, many folks in Parkersburg felt they could take just about any punch thrown at them. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. It claimed lives and took a bite at businesses. But as was the case with those prior tragedies, the people of Parkersburg weren’t about to be defined by this latest challenge. Instead they defined themselves by what they would do to overcome — support one another.
While local incentives can bring businesses to small Iowa towns, they are no guarantee that the town can be vital or bring visitors, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation of towns with fewer than 5,000 people showed. The reasons vary.
With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A selected collection of downtown or main street photos taken in Iowa’s small towns in summer 2021 for “Small Town Solution,” an IowaWatch report on how these towns try to remain vital while losing population. A handful of small Iowa towns with populations of less than 5,000 and not part of a larger metro area, bucked the trend and grew their populations in the 2020 census data just released. Growing small towns have one or more factors working in their favor, a summer-long IowaWatch investigation revealed for this special report. Photos by Lyle Muller, except for Belmond, La Porte City, Denver and Parkersburg, which are by Pat Kinney. THE LATEST STORY: HIGH HURDLES EXIST FOR IOWA’S HOMEGROWN, SMALL-TOWN BUSINESSES
READ THE FIRST STORY HERE: HOW A HANDFUL OF IOWA TOWNS THRIVE, RISE ABOVE RURAL DECLINE
A handful of small Iowa towns with 5,000 or fewer people and not part of a larger metro area bucked the trend in the 2020 census and grew their populations. These towns grew populations at a time when the 2020 census showed Iowa’s urban population growing to 64% of the state’s 3.16 million people. The share of urban dwellers in Iowa was near 61% in both 2010 and 2000, 58% in 1990, and 57% in 1980. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
A four-month IowaWatch investigation that included visits to 58 towns of 5,000 or fewer people turned up examples of growing rural communities. One of those growing in population isn’t even incorporated, but counted, none the less, by the U.S. Census Bureau.
LA PORTE CITY, Iowa – This town emerged from the pandemic “ready to rumble” – literally. The city of La Porte City completed a $3 million “streetscape” renovation of Main Street downtown while many businesses were shut down in 2020. It included a restoration of the raised-brick pavement in the street that autos and carriages rode over for generations. With support from the Solutions Journalism Network
“People wanted the bricks back because they like that rumble,” Mayor Dave Neil, a former Iowa state labor commissioner and member of the Iowa Board of Regents, said. But there have also been losses due to the coronavirus.