Rural Towns Fighting Back: Lamoni, Iowa

BY KERRY ANDERSON

WHEN the statistics paint a glum picture it’s hard to be a glass half full type of community. How can you turn around a declining rural county that is the poorest per capita and has the lowest land value in Iowa? Sometimes it takes fresh eyes and enthusiasm to help find the answers.  Chatting with Dr William (Bill) Morain, Secretary and Past-President of the Decatur County Development Corporation, it becomes evident that retirees can be a great resource when they return to their roots.

Lamoni in Iowa may have missed out on the rich soils nourished by the prehistoric Wisconsin Glacier but it does have some pleasant hill country suited to raising cattle and hunting and fishing.  It also has a university!

Established in 1895, the privately owned Graceland University is a key player in Lamoni’s success story.   Of Lamoni’s current 2,354 population, 950 are students.  The college owns substantial land and assets; and the alumni have a strong connection with this otherwise agricultural town.

In fact, this is how Bill and his partner Sherry came to retire in Lamoni. ‘We were sweethearts at Graceland in the 1960’s but went our separate ways,’ says Bill explaining the connection. ‘I went on to become a plastic surgeon and Sherry a social worker. We found each other again in the 1990s and returned to Lamoni in 1995 as remarried retirees.’

What they saw on their return was a very different perspective from when they were young students focussed on their future careers.

‘Inertia was a real problem’ says Bill. ‘It wears everyone down when you are a declining rural county that is the poorest per capita and has the lowest land values in Iowa.’

A psychological turning point.

As a retiree helping to reinvigorate an existing volunteer base, the first project Bill worked on proved to be a psychological turning point.

‘With volunteer crews of up to 30 people some days, we built six miles of bike trail along an old railway line,’ explains Bill. ‘I wrote the grant applications and sourced funds. We did our own paving in three sections four years apart. I think we must have had the highest number of PhD’s on a cement crew,’ he quips. ‘The time delay between the projects helped us to forget how hard the work was!’

But turning a community around needs more than ad-hoc community projects and requires regional support.

Take a regional approach.

Renowned for its agricultural industries, Iowa notably consists of many small rural communities.  ‘You can’t get along as a single town, you need to approach it as a regional economy and be prepared to share your resources,’ says Bill who became President of the reformed Decatur County Development Corporation that provides support to towns across the county.

‘We’ve developed some good friends through a regional network,’ says Bill. ‘The Iowa Area Development Group brought us a manufacturing business and, with it, around eight jobs.’

"It gave us a road map."

A master plan gave Lamoni the mechanism to approach the city council and Decatur County Development Corporation for grants and support to major projects. ‘It gave us a road map and cemented our networks with outside sources that came to our aid,’ Bill reflects.

‘$50,000 to fund a master plan was a major undertaking but we approached a number of civic partners and private contributors to get what we needed.’

A big fan of Richard Longworth’s published research, ‘Caught in the Middle,’ Bill says that there are three elements that can positively influence a rural community’s future: an interstate highway, a college, or a lake.

Lamoni was fortunate to tick two of those boxes with Graceland University and nearby Interstate 35.  Not content with two out of three they also investigated building a lake but Bill sadly reports that it wouldn’t have been big enough to be profitable.

Despite a previous lack of venture capital, a $50,000 investment in the master plan and regional partnerships fostered are already showing impressive results for Lamoni.

‘So much is happening all at once,’ exclaims Bill.

The master plan identified that a quality up-scale hotel would greatly benefit the town.  Following a successful feasibility study and agreement of the Graceland President’s family to provide a suitable piece of land, the community set about raising $900,000 with the support of a sympathetic agricultural bank.  Graceland alumni from across the country provided one third of this amount demonstrating strong emotional ties from their student college days spent in Lamoni no matter how far away they now live.  Building commenced in 2016, and on 15 September 2017, a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrated the opening of the brand new Lamoni Cobblestone Inn and Suites comprising 33 guest rooms.

As a member of the local investment group, Bill had the honour of opening the ceremony and is quoted as saying: ‘We have a special thanks to some very creative people from the middle of Wisconsin, who got the crazy idea a few a years ago that you could put an upscale hotel in a small town and have it do well. It represents the best kind of risk-taking and creativity to make this happen.’

Simultaneously another working group, led by a local crop dusting contractor, put a plan into motion to extend the airport runway from 2,900 to 3,400 feet opening up access for twin engine planes.  In September 2017 Lamoni celebrated their second grand opening within a month including six bays rented out in the new hangar.

Maximising traffic from Interstate 35 has taken a little more thought.  To attract visitors into town simple strategies to beautify the highway and change the signage from ‘two miles’ to ‘just off the highway’ were recommended.  The signage proved simple however the beautification hit a few snags along the way.

‘Essentially we wanted to build a commercial bridge by cleaning up those two miles between the interstate and town,’ says Bill. ‘Repainting a company owned rusty tank was relatively easy but then we had a number of businesses and private properties littered with junk cars that were an eye sore.’ 

Introducing a regulation requiring property owners to erect six foot fencing along the highway met with severe resistance.  An alternative was found and now everyone is smiling. 

Bill is looking forward to next spring as $100,000 of funding has been approved by the Department of Transportation to plant 300 trees, shrubs and wild flowers between the town and interstate.  ‘Where needed we will intensify the plantings and create a green barrier instead of a fence to beautify our town entry,’ Bill smiles.

It has been almost twenty years since the reformation of the County Development Corporation and Bill is philosophic.  In addition to these significant projects, a number of local businesses have also received financial support to expand.  Another good indicator is that the local population has risen by 30 since the 2010 Census.

"You have to have people who are willing to take a risk."

‘You have to have people who are willing to take a risk. Yes, some ideas have gone south but many others have been successful.’

Freedom Racing, a Lamoni e-tail niche business that employs 16 people, is a great example of what has been a success.  While the business originated ten years ago in the owner's house, it has progressively grown to become the largest business in its particular niche in the world, shipping specialised auto parts and tools internationally.  In 2016, recognising the importance of this business to the region, the Lamoni Development Corporation built new premises for Freedom Racing on a lease-to-buy basis with the owner.

Typical of most rural towns, there are still many challenges ahead for Lamoni including keeping their local high school and expanding their tax base to support more development but the community now has a far more positive outlook having put some credible scores on the board.

And Bill’s final word of advice to other rural towns wanting to fight back?

‘I’m a volunteer but every committee needs a full time paid person. When all communities pitched in to form a county-wide development group, we had sufficient funds to hire that person.  No town could have done this alone. It’s absolutely essential to have someone to drive projects and give assistance to entrepreneurs.’ 


This article is the second in a series looking at how rural towns are fighting back here in Australia and overseas.

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Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry Anderson works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE