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‘Neighboring’ crucial for Iowa communities


GRINNELL – This college town of 9,200 people recently devised a new economic development technique, joked Todd Linden, chairman of Grinnell Renaissance, a development partnership between the city and Grinnell College.

“We just arrange for a Brink’s truck to spill occasionally on the interstate,” said Linden, referring to a recent incident in which an armored truck traveling on Interstate 80 lost tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Linden is the president and chief executive of Grinnell Regional Medical Center.

Grinnell isn’t the only community seeking ways to improve its downtown. Last week, about 200 government officials and business people gathered for the two-day Iowa Downtown Summit to learn ways to improve the economies of Iowa’s central business districts.

Whereas downtown development was once a matter of adding roads, buildings and other infrastructure, today’s challenges are less tangible. For instance, American workers move more frequently than they ever have, and are consequently less trustful of their neighbors than they once were.

“Historically, community development was about building things,” said Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University professor and chair of the sociology department.. “Now it occurs to me that Iowa is about building social capital, the community involvement, participation. I like to express it as ‘neighboring’.”

Lasley, who spoke at the summit’s opening session on Aug. 26, said social capital is the glue that holds communities together. It requires three primary elements: trust, cooperation and communication. Re-establishing those elements can help to reduce the distrust that has developed as people no longer know their neighbors, in some cases even within small Iowa towns.

It’s those rural communities, often located within an hour’s drive of metropolitan areas such as Des Moines, that are likeliest to see an influx of new residents seeking an escape from the city.

“A lot of people ignore that group, but I think we should be paying attention to them,” he said. “In about every small community I visit, I see new homes out in the countryside, and I wonder where (the residents) are working and where they are shopping.”

One of the best ways to determine the health of a community’s social capital is by talking to its residents, Lasley said.

“Almost invariably, in dying communities, they’ll tell you about the past. They’ll say, ‘We used to have a hospital, two movie theaters and a Chevy dealership.'”

Conversely, people in healthy towns will talk about what has just been accomplished, or projects that are in the works, he said.

One thing communities should do to help themselves is to try to remove the “hassle factor” of serving in local government or as a community leader, Lasley said.

Finding volunteers for community projects can be difficult, said Sandy Ehrig, administrator of the Community Development Division of the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

Often, a good tactic is to ask people to be on a committee for one task they enjoy, which sometimes leads to longer-term involvement, she said.   “People want to give their time where they feel they make a difference,” she said.

A Marshalltown representative said one of her city’s biggest challenges has been to integrate its large, growing Hispanic population, who currently account for about 16 percent of its residents, into the community.

“We’re at this time making a good effort at bilingual education,” said Alyce Quastad, vice president of the Marshalltown Central Business District. Among those efforts is a bilingual program that began last year at one of the elementary schools. “By the time the students get to fifth grade, they’ll be bilingual,” she said.

With the completion of the Highway 330/65 project recently, Des Moines and Marshalltown residents can connect more quickly than ever before, Quastad said. The downtown district is “becoming very vibrant,” she added, with few empty storefronts.

Joining the Iowa Department of Economic Development’ s Main Street Program last year has been beneficial, Quastad said. Being able to attend seminars such as the downtown summit at reduced rates is one benefit.

Through the program, Marshalltown was also able to book a nationally known business speaker, Rick Segal, to give a talk on “How to Make Money in Small Business Today” on Sept. 9.

“There’s no way we could have brought someone of that stature to Marshalltown without assistance,” she said.

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