Faltering Rural Economies
I grew up rural. Small town Iowa. Tama, Iowa to be exact. Go ahead, Google it (it's not this photo above). I was a "townie" while my wife grew up outside of town on a farm. I wasn't aware of the economic climate of where I grew up (what kid was?). All I knew was that my dad worked at the local meat packing plant and then at the other one west of town while my mom worked at one of a few different hospitals in adjacent counties. I moved out of state for college in 1993 and haven't lived there again.
Last year I was back in Iowa passing through Tama on my way to my grandmother's funeral. I stopped by to visit Brian Gumm who started and runs Ross Street Roasting Company that is now housed in the old Jack's Feed store that I remember visiting as a child. As I drove around my hometown I couldn't help to notice how run down and distressed it looked. Was it always this shoddy? I wondered to myself. We have a tendency to gloss over the past. But I came to find out I wasn't glossing over anything. It is a community struggling economically. The once semi-vibrant downtown seemed to have only one in four storefronts occupied.
When I got back to Portland I started scouring the internet for economic development initiatives or reports giving me the current status of the community and county. What I found was shocking but not surprising. Sixty percent of workers leave the county for work. They head east an hour to Cedar Rapids (pop: 266,000), 20 minutes west to Marshalltown (pop: 27,000), north to Cedar Falls / Waterloo (pop: 170,000), or even south to Grinnell (pop: 9,200). Over the years the packing plant has shut down and reopened, but with the new 4-lane expanded highway through a different part of town it has cut off the lifeblood of Tama's downtown even more so.
Tama isn't an anomaly. This storyline is repeated in small communities across the US and Canada. From time to time I've pointed out and posted articles of communities who've found a way to reverse the tide, specifically through adventure tourism like mountain biking (see "Adventure Tourism, Economic Development, and Church Planting"). When we talk of poverty our default mode is thinking about the inner-cities of yesterday. However, there are many small communities that resemble these inner-cities in terms of being cut off from economic opportunities, high poverty, and even hopelessness. Suicide is significantly higher among rural youth than urban youth.
The reality is that the world has changed since my childhood. Even with Trump's promises to bring back manufacturing jobs to the U.S. currently only 6% of workers actually make things in factories (Florida, The New Urban Crisis, 203). Only 20% of Americans do blue-collar work of any sort today (Ibid.). What is needed is not to double down on a bygone economic era. The world has changed. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
However, the good news is that all is not hopeless. But the way forward is through creativity, innovation, and hard work rather than redoubling our efforts to try and reclaim the past. This is where Intrepid is going. Would you join us?