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Fading to what?

BY STACEY MURRAY | DECEMBER 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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Bette Wilson saw the warning signs.

The 88-year-old knew her tiny town was fading. The population of Hopkinton, Iowa – incorporated in 1875 by a Dubuque transplant – had been dwindling for years, and storefronts had been shutting their doors in tandem.

Lenox College closed in 1944. The shop where Bette bought the hat she wore to her own wedding closed. Three grocery stores closed.

She was born there. Her father, Clarence Hageman, moved to Hopkinton after World War I and married her mother. She has spent 85 of her 88 years living in this small town in northeastern Iowa.

The closings go on. A movie theater. A drug store. A bowling alley. All just memories.

Bette, my childhood neighbor, was 66 when I was born at the tailend of 1993. Our memories of our withering Main Street and the people who walked along it intersect for many years.

I watched the grocery store close — the one where I bought my Juicy Fruit gum for 25 cents. The hair salon two doors down that kept a crate of battered toys for kids patiently waiting for their mothers’ perms to set. The restaurant in which my brother served a brief stint as a waiter.

And every time I pack up my two-door Chevy Cobalt to come back to Iowa City after a holiday or a relaxing weekend at home, I feel a twinge of regret or guilt — it’s hard to discern.

It’s more than homesickness. Hopkinton and all of the 600 people who live there feel like a part of me. My personality was sculpted from the life I had there. It’s hard to verbalize my visceral affection for this village-sized town. Hopkinton and small-town Iowa is more my heritage than my hometown.

There will come a time, after the ink dries on my diploma, when I’m ready to start a more permanent life. It won’t be in Hopkinton, the place where my parents live, my grandfather started his business, the librarians knew me by name as a little girl with perpetually knotted hair and an affinity for Junie B. Jones.

Hopkinton, like dozens of small towns in Iowa and the Midwest, needs an influx of business owners and families who will send their kids to the local schools. But there are serious doubts whether such a panacea will ever arrive. So some will stay; I will leave.

And without some change — the weak breath of life currently hovering through Hopkinton will slow until it some day stops entirely.

Other towns around the state and region are suffering from similar fates. Hopkinton is one of the many small towns in Iowa continuing to shrink in size. According to a report from the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, more than 60 percent of cities in Iowa lost population since 2010. Iowa towns with fewer than 500 residents lost 3 percent of their combined population in a matter of a few years.

Yet survival is possible – particularly if one of those small towns is close enough to a city.

Some small towns are growing — but only if they are located in counties with a metropolitan status, meaning they are close enough to a city to thrive. Hopkinton, for instance, falls into the category of towns with a population between 500 and 2,499, but it is not located in a metropolitan-status county. For towns in a metropolitan-status county, the population grew by 2 percent over the past three years. If not, the population declined by 1.1 percent.

While the fate of Hopkinton looks pretty dismal, other small towns are drumming up new ways to survive.

Those who study the demise of small towns agree that the unofficial benchmarks of a viable town include the existence of a school, a post office, and a grocery store.

“From what I’ve observed, you can kind of see when a community is going down the drain,” said Jeff Reynolds of the Nebraskan Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. “To me, when a community loses its grocery store, its last eating establishment, where people go to have coffee … when that’s gone, you know you’re in trouble.”

But our post office remains open, a small victory for Hopkinton residents.

“It’s probably not a big deal for the younger set — but it’s a symbol that you’re still viable,” Reynolds said. “You’re still on the map when you have a post office.”

So some city folk might ask: What’s the lure to living in a small community where everything closes at 9 and honestly there’s not much, if anything, to do? The answer is perhaps more simple than many people may think: social capital.

Professor Terry Besser, a sociologist at Iowa State University, is leading a study that began in 1994 to track the quality in life in 99 of Iowa’s small towns. The study focuses on social capital — the relationships among people — that is intrinsic to many small communities.

Besser and her team surveyed residents of these small towns in 1994, 2004, and again this year. In fact, My parents received a copy of the survey in the mail.

The results are the epitome of what a stereotypical small town is like. According to the 2004 study, nearly one-half of people in Hopkinton felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked. Fifty-six percent said living in my hometown is like living with close friends, and 60 percent trust local teenagers.

And those things ring true. For me, distrust is a conditioned response. Upon arriving in Iowa City, I had never pulled the keys out of the ignition to my car. In the summers of my childhood, my brothers, cousins, and friends could order lunch from a restaurant downtown — the Showroom — and our parents would pick up the tab the next time they stopped by.

“Social capital” may sound like a plus, but it just isn’t enough to entice the number of young people who grow up in a small town and leave once they are able.

Honestly, it pains me to say this because I’m one of those young people. The residents of Hopkinton are a sort of extended family. When I graduated high school, random residents would slip laminated photos of me from local newspapers under the door to our garage. At my graduation party, various residents of Hopkinton I had seen in church or in the local mini mart or walking down Main Street in the previous 18 years mentioned I had made them proud.

I love my hometown. But it’s so hard to imagine a Hopkinton where I could stay. Where will I work? Where will I live? What could the town provide me as I strive to build a career and a new life?

When the study was released in 2004 — when I was 10 years old — 25 percent of people in Hopkinton shopped in town for their daily needs; that was down from 41 percent in 1994.

“…There are so few of them, relatively speaking, it’s draining on individual resources because there isn’t a broad population,” Besser said. “They have difficulty maintaining infrastructure they need — health care, schooling … it almost becomes a downward spiral.”

And when rating local services, nearly 90 percent considered the public schools to be “good” or “very good,” but the jobs, shopping, and recreation/entertainment received a single-digit percent of commendable reviews.

This study comes as no surprise. It’s a statistical representation of what people in Hopkinton already know.

“There just isn’t much here,” Bette said, with clutched hands, sitting at her round dining-room table.

Liesl Eathington, an assistant scientist in economics at ISU, disseminates Census Bureau data for the university and the general public.

She said Iowa small towns have undergone this trend since the beginning of the state’s history, and the decline in population accelerated in the farm crisis of the 1980s — a period of agricultural recession in which low crop prices forced farmers into other jobs — typically in neighboring cities.

The way agriculture is done, she said, has also played a part in the population shifts. With fewer families farming the same amount of land, the local communities have fewer customers to support their business.

“It’s not something economists or politicians are doing wrong,” Eathington said. “It’s a very natural phenomenon.”

But this death of small towns isn’t just a story of the state — it’s happening throughout the Midwest.

Reynolds of the Center for Rural Affairs, an organization based in Nebraska with several initiatives focused on developing rural areas in the state, works with the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project to aid small businesses as means of economic development for rural Nebraska.

He points out most small towns can’t recruit or maintain factories, so the next step is to pump resources into small, local businesses that can support an agricultural industry.

The center provides loans, counseling, and business planning to entrepreneurs.

“We’re not the magic bullet,” he said. “We’re a means to an end, but in the world of small business, we can play a big part in helping the community succeed.”

Iowa has similar agencies working throughout the state, including the Iowa Economic Development Agency, the Iowa Farm Bureau, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

There are some communities that thrive, but leaders in rural development don’t quite agree on the best ways to foster economic development in an aging population. But they agree something could be done.

Peter Orazem, a professor of economics at Iowa State University who has researched rural labor markets, said perhaps the focus should be providing rural communities with commuting opportunities — that if jobs can’t be brought to small-town Iowa, putting them within driving distance could be the next best thing.

It’s more reasonable for Iowans than their Nebraskan counterparts. The economic epicenters in Iowa are reasonably well distributed — Dubuque, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Sioux City, Davenport, and Council Bluffs are scattered throughout the state, unlike Nebraska, which faces the obstacle of having its two-largest cities within 60 miles of each other near the eastern border.

It comes down to basic facts of economics.

Rural areas can provide business owners some advantages — the cost of land is typically lower — but the farther a business is from its supplies or customers, the more expensive the inputs. And even obtaining those inputs means a strong infrastructure must be in place — something Iowa leaders have been trying to address.

Several experts have noted that some communities have capitalized on the growing Latino population as a means of survival.

According to the Iowa Data Center, Iowa saw a 104.7 percent increase in the Latino population between 2000 and 2013, for a total of 86,333 people. The state predicts the Latino population will account for 12.4 percent of the state’s population by 2040, up from 5.5 percent in 2013.

In Schyler, Nebraska, at the 2000 census, roughly 2,400 Latinos out of more than 5,000 people called the town their home. By 2010, that number jumped to more than 4,000, making the Latino population the majority. Reynolds said the center worked with Latino entrepreneurs to revamp the business climate.

Iowa has seen similar increases.

Sioux Center, a town of just more than 7,000 residents in northwestern Iowa, had just 280 people of Latino origin in the 2000 census, and it jumped to 920 in 10 years — an influx Besser said helped the town’s growth, along with its energy initiatives that pumped money back into the economy.

Yet government agencies see more weak spots that need addressing — such as infrastructure.

“I think it’s more complicated than saying we need more jobs in rural places; that’s an element,” said Bill Menner, the state director of USDA rural development. “We need housing, we need to have clean water, we need to have available health care, and strong institutions. It’s an all-of-the-above approach.”

But the question most often raised to me when I talk about this subject is obvious — why should anyone care? Honestly I hear this from a number of friends who come from bigger cities. They just don’t see what need these towns fill.

The answer, my friends, may be surprising: food security.

“If we let small towns compete evenly, they’re always going to lose,” Menner said. “There needs to be a special rural set-aside, and it’s all about food security.”

Because the private sector may not choose to invest in small towns, the government, such as Menner’s section of the federal agency, often choose to get involved.

Rural development is a small piece of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s job, but it exists because Congress believes there was a role for the government to support small towns and rural places — simply put, those small towns support agricultural producers.

Need I remind you that agriculture in Iowa employs one in five Iowans, and the total value of agriculture production increased nearly 51 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the 2014 Iowa Ag Economic Contribution Study by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers. Each year, Iowa farmers produce 2.1 billion bushels of corn and 525 million bushels of soybeans.

It’s not a crisis yet. Some areas of Iowa show promise — small towns can survive in the current economic climate. But there is reason to worry.

“I’m not suggesting we’re on the forefront of a wave of ghost towns, but what I’m saying is that very small communities get older and without new residents coming in, without new jobs and available housing, those places will struggle to survive,” Menner said.

The decline of small-town America feels more personal for me than the buzzwords surrounding the issue. Talk of rural development and labor markets seems like an ill-fitting sweater on the community I grew up in — the town that rallied around my family in our toughest personal times and seemed like the resilient Iowans we all — regardless of population — strive to be. 

I hope someone or something — as cliché as it sounds — can save the best thing that ever happened to me — the place that taught me about acceptance, community, and humility. I do.

And as my conversation with my old friend Bette waned, she said something that caught my attention.

It was something I hadn’t heard much throughout my life.

She had heard a rumor — an unconfirmed whisper — that could, admittedly be untrue.

From what she’s heard, some out-of-towner, some stranger to Hopkinton, bought a boarded-up restaurant.

And he wants to reopen it.


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