Dec. 8, 2010
UI working with eight Iowa communities on new economic development strategies
A University of Iowa project is underway to help eight selected towns around the state find a new way to create a community-wide economic development plan that can be used as a model by other small towns in Iowa.
The pilot project brings together leaders from municipal and county government, civic organizations, and nonprofit and faith-based organizations to find new ways to develop local economies. Jeff Schott, director of the UI Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) who is overseeing the project, said this kind of broad-based planning encourages new ideas and ensures wide community support for the plan’s goals.
“We sense a lot of excitement in all of these places to see these plans move forward,” Schott said. “With involvement from so many people and so many groups, we think there’s a lot of forward momentum in our client communities to make sure these plans come to life.”
The communities working with UI are all under 5,000 population and include Belle Plaine, Chariton, Pocahontas, Prairie City and the Lee County communities of Donnellson, Franklin, Montrose and West Point -- all of them cooperating on a joint economic development plan. The UI resources are provided by the IPA and the Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center (INRC) at no cost to the communities.
The project recently completed its first phase, which was to meet with some 30 to 50 people from each community in order to develop a vision, define goals and write a report with steps to take for each community. Schott said the project committees included members from local and county governments, civic groups, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and local and regional development groups. He said successful implementation of the plans will require extensive civic cooperation.
“One of the realizations we’ve had is that nonprofit organizations, civic groups, local businesses and local government all have to work together to strengthen their communities,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to do if someone is going their own way or just sitting on the sidelines.”
With the plans approved in each community, the INRC and IPA will now provide training and technical assistance to help implement them.
“Implementation is certainly the number one issue we’re seeing now,” said Schott. “It’s easier to define a vision and goals, but it gets harder when we start to ask who’s going to put it in place. There are only so many resources in smaller communities, but we’re confident that with our assistance, they can make these plans happen.”
Schott said each town had a different set of priorities and goals for itself. In the Lee County towns, for instance, tourism was important, as community members seek to capitalize on their location near the Mississippi River and an established trail system to attract visitors.
But in Pocahontas, Schott said, the community pointed to quality of life as a primary issue, as the town’s employers struggle to attract workers to fill job openings.
However, some goals were common to all the communities. Schott said that encouraging downtown development, working with aging rural populations, bringing new employers to town and helping existing businesses grow seem to be important everywhere.
“Most economic development comes from existing businesses, so it’s important that communities have an infrastructure in place to work with those businesses and help them find resources to expand and add jobs,” he said.
Schott said the results obtained from the pilot projects will be used to develop best practices for nonprofit organizations and local governments to build organizational capacity and promote collaboration to develop long-term community economic recovery strategies.
The program is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Strengthening Communities Fund –- State, Local and Tribal Government Capacity program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The Strengthening Community Fund is dedicated to improving the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of communities and secular and faith-based nonprofit organizations located and providing services throughout Iowa.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500