How communities can capitalize on their assets.
Steven Simon of West Des Moines and two partners purchased the South Story Bank & Trust in Huxley, with other branches in Slater and Ames. He has become a strong proponent for Huxley, which sits between Ames and Ankeny on Highway 69.
“Huxley just got a bar, Fenceline Brew Pub, and it needs a good restaurant, although the brew pub will be getting some food. There is so much potential and such a base of salt-of-the-earth good people. At the end of 2018 there were 104 housing starts, and 300 more building lots are being developed,” he says.
Those numbers are music to the ears of Derick Anderson of Johnston, vice president of the water division of McClure Engineering Co., and of Libby Crimmings of Des Moines, vice principal of Alchemy Community Transformations. The two spoke at the recent Land Investment Expo 2020 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on the topic of Successful Economic Development for the Future.
“Development isn’t just about growth,” Anderson says. “It’s also about sustainability and vibrancy.” Before development can happen, there has to be water, he explains. He cites the Roman aqueduct system and Egyptian irrigation. “These systems have been in place since the first century. The tools may be slightly different, but the engineering concepts have been carried forward since ancient times.” He says the limiting factors of water—too much or too little—sway and affect the potential for development.
Crimmings puts her magnifying glass on communities around the country after they have been developed, often long after. “You know those towns. Their main industry may have closed or moved. And, while people love the serenity of small towns, it’s often hard to keep people there if there are no amenities. What we do in helping communities is called creative placemaking. We capitalize on what is already there and try to enhance and improve it.”
She says strong leadership is important in believing that a town can gain new vibrancy and attract residents. “I know that I couldn’t wait to leave Des Moines many years ago, thinking there was nothing for me here. I lived around the country, and then I came back. What a difference. Now the city has so much to offer me and my family.”
In many small towns, she says, there is a lack of good housing, or there are blighted neighborhoods. “Especially in towns where people have to drive to another town for employment, it is absolutely essential to have good day care available.”
Crimmings lists these factors for towns to consider: a place for families, high quality of life, friendly people, something for everyone, close to everything, what’s unique, and what’s missing.
She has worked with various Iowa towns, such as Oskaloosa (population 11,000) and Stanton in southwest Iowa (population 637), on creating action plans for revitalization. “Oskaloosa has a large company in town in Musco Lighting, but it’s hard to attract young people to live there,” Crimmings says. She has worked with residents on downtown revitalization and beautification.
“You have to invest in people and amenities—things to do, appropriate housing, and recreation.”
In Stanton, with its Swedish heritage, one-third of the local residents, more than 200 people, turned out for a meeting on how to rev up their town. “It just showed how much people cared,” Crimmings says. “The dreamers and the doers wanted something to happen. In some situations people decide to come back to a town. They are able to rent or buy space reasonably to perhaps start a coffee shop or a gift shop. Boomerang people often move back and start small businesses.”
“Leadership is essential,” Anderson says. “We have so many small towns around central Iowa where things can turn around. With technology, so many more people can work from anywhere. That makes a lot of difference. But the bottom line is that leadership has to be on board. Some can have ideas, but they have to align with elected officials and work together to make things happen.”
Simon of the Huxley bank knows all that to be true. “Huxley is the Waukee of 25 years ago. Just watch what can happen.”