Farm Progress

Guest column: Rural populations will grow when communities tackle critical cultural issues.

April 5, 2017

6 Min Read
COMMUNITY CULTURE: For a community to grow, make sure its culture welcomes new people and their ideas.

By Kimberlee and Frank Spillers

Between 2010 and 2014, more rural counties lost population than gained. In many of these counties, it has been the trend for over 100 years, prompting the question: “Do you need to address your community’s culture?”

Is your community’s culture stopping its growth? Every community has its own culture and people feel it, whether they’ve just moved in or have been there 20-plus years. Has your town grown steadily during the last 100 years? Do you want it to? If you want your community to grow, but it isn’t, maybe it’s time you look at whether your community culture traps you. Rural communities will gain new people when you change your culture to welcome and truly include people and their ideas.

Roughly 36% of Iowans live in rural areas. Why is this population loss happening? Should rural communities give up? How can we reverse the downward spiral? Ask these questions at home; at your city council, school board and church meetings; or at the coffee shop.

• Are you talking about population decline? More importantly, what are you doing about it? About poverty rates? Are you talking to your elected officials?

• Is your town still doing economic development the same way it has for the last 100 years? Are you getting the results you want?

• How about attitudes? What is said of the town? What do you say about it? Your youth?

• Do you have an entrepreneurial ecosystem in place, not just a class in school?

• Are you discussing what is happening in your school district with the public? More student growth than can be handled?

• Are you constantly looking for new people to engage and participate with?

• What’s happening with your hospital? What is its stability to stay open?

• How about housing? Are people changing location or new people coming to the area?

• What about income opportunities? Not everyone is cut out to work for someone else. Is your community supportive of people starting their own businesses and will your community support them?

• What is your community doing to attract new people?

Depending on the answers, it may be time to think about changing your community culture to attract newcomers and move that “people needle” up.

Studies show that 98% of new jobs are created by existing businesses and entrepreneurship, only 2% of jobs are created using the strategy of business recruitment. But the efforts of most economic development programs are geared to recruit “that” business to town so we can create “good” jobs. If we attract “that” business, it may be good for one community, but a loss for the community “that” business left. We’ve just shifted location, and perpetuated a win-lose game plan. Rural areas must work differently; they must work together to grow.

Forward-thinking metros support rural development because vibrant surrounding communities maximize potential employees in current and future workforce pools.

Health care impacted
Affected by population, access to medical practitioners and facilities is crucial for Iowa’s aging rural population, and the local health care system is often a major employer.

The National Rural Health Association wanted to know where this depopulation trend is heading. They teamed up with the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina and iVantage, a health analytics firm. The goal was to identify rural hospital closures when they happen, collect a snapshot of how many rural hospitals are struggling, and where they are located.

Research identifies 2,078 rural hospitals, of which, 1,284 are critical-access facilities. They found 210 were “most vulnerable,” meaning they could potentially close tomorrow, with 463 labeled “at risk,” meaning they could close at any point in the next couple of years. Together, 52.4% of all rural critical-access hospitals in the U.S. are compromised.

As people leave to work in metro areas, the most vulnerable, the elderly, are left without critical services where they live. Read the article here.

Birthing specialists needed
Health care questions are just as concerning for communities longing for young people starting families: medical professionals such as obstetricians, gynecologists and nurse midwives are in short supply across the country. If your county doesn’t have specialists to deliver babies, are your general practitioner doctors doing so? If travel is required for families to give birth, will the availability of a birthing facility impact their decision to live in your county?

So what is a county to do to keep going and growing? These recommendations will move you ahead:

• Make sure you truly welcome and include all new people. Most communities want to grow, but often don’t want newcomers and their ideas, unless the new people think, look like, act and believe like the community. States with the greatest percentage of population gain have a higher percentage of people not born in that state. Ask a newcomer — even someone who has lived in the community 20-plus years — how they feel. You may be surprised at what you hear if their grandparents aren’t buried in the cemetery.

• Much of rural Iowa has amazing telecommunications infrastructure, thanks to rural telephone company investments paving the way for internet-based businesses to move in. It’s forecast that 40% of the workforce of one major Iowa company will telecommute in the next five to 10 years. Is your community ready with family-friendly policies that include telecommuting?

• Capture generational transfer of wealth, using it to build and support new enterprises and business succession.

• Use social networking to build relationships with 30- to 49-year-olds who would favor living in safe communities to build a global business.

• Family-friendly policies and early care and education are “critical infrastructure,” requiring community and business investment to attract families and support workforce needs. 

• Teach communities, businesses, families, organizations the art of value-based dialogue to move contentious issues forward.  

• Develop entrepreneurial ecosystems to build a strong business climate.

• One vital youth retention strategy is to work with your “at-risk” students, who have great, creative ideas to develop into solid businesses. They will likely attend community college, trade school, or jump right into your local workforce and lead your town serving on city council and school board.

• Teach pertinent skills to fifth- through 12th-grade students to connect school-to-workplace habits. Help them to see themselves as entrepreneurs who can build businesses in their home community as valuable assets.

• Positive relationships change culture and dynamics between communities that may have been damaged by athletic competition, county charter arguments or school mergers. If you say, “We’re doing this,” but still lose population and poverty is stable or rising, think again. Improvement measures are a growing population, increased community engagement, a younger average age, and decreased poverty rates.

• You may have to work around the “good ol’ boys” clubs or maybe you are a part of one. Once valuable, decades-old methods of attraction are too pricey for rural areas. If still using them, you’re likely losing population, schools, hospitals and youth. A community functions best when all people get together to work on public problems. This creates wealth, where entrepreneurial opportunities are identified and developed for the good of the whole.

• Area leadership must work together to grow. County supervisors, all boards, schools, councils, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, civic groups, and community and private foundations will accomplish more faster when they work together.

The Spillers work from Atlantic. Visit Contact the Spillers’ at 712-250-0275 or [email protected] and visit

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