Iowa Economic Development Tops Rural Community Wish Lists

August 20, 2021


Iowa economic development, education, healthcare score highest in Bank Iowa study

Rural Iowans are looking to boost a local recovery but may not know where to start. Iowa economic development remains a key issue in local farm communities, according to a study conducted by Bank Iowa. Nearly 60% of respondents named economic development as the single most important issue in their community.


That should not be surprising given that economic development cuts across most sectors of rural Iowans’ lives from farms to dealerships to general commerce. To further the progress in Iowa, and perhaps other rural areas in the heartland, the younger generation, including recent school graduates, should be encouraged to find work near home. However, a solid economy is key to providing both job and social opportunities to help keep communities vibrant.


Trailing Iowa economic development in importance were key concerns like education cited by 25% and healthcare by 10% of respondents. Both education and healthcare reflect Iowans’ desire to build an infrastructure that will support short-term and long-term prospects for their towns. A well-educated youth can take advantage of economic advancements. Continuing education helps residents in farm communities stay abreast of technological development. With state of the art medical and health facilities nearby, community members are promised short distance travel to emergency and medical services.


The study results appear to reflect an underlying hope for a return to normal in a post-COVID-19 time. Across all spectrums of respondents, people indicated they are looking to their financial leaders to show the way to more economic development. And they look to those institutions with expertise in economics.


“When the ag community does well, it fosters growth in all sectors of the community,” said Jim Plagge, CEO of Bank Iowa. “We can do a lot for Iowa economic development just by doing our job. A community with a risk-averse bank is a community that will struggle with development,” he added, noting that Bank Iowa aggressively supports the farm communities it serves both by donations and loans.


Study mirrors USDA plans

The Bank Iowa study reflects a broader consensus. Last year, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for Rural Development announced that the agency was placing a priority on economic development in rural areas. Although the exact wording of the USDA announcement and Bank Iowa study’s questions were somewhat different, USDA announced it would place its development priorities on programs like:

  1. Community Facilities Loans, Grants and Loan Guarantees
  2. Water and Waste Disposal Program Loans, Grants and Loan Guarantees
  3. Business and Industry Program Loan Guarantees
  4. Rural Business Development Grants

  Healthcare initiatives and education would likely fall under the first category.

In addition, USDA specifically mentioned the need for internet access in rural areas. Much attention has been given to bringing reliable high-speed internet and cellular service to farm areas. Locally, Bank Iowa partnered with New Hampton Municipal Utilities to bring safe, reliable, fast internet connectivity to the community. In many ways, the town was in the dark when it came to the internet. In large part because of financing from Bank Iowa, people now can work from home, take school courses and keep up on market moves. With its own fiber-optic network, New Hampton assures citizens a more reliable grid. Main Street is more vibrant and the town is moving forward, thanks to support from its community bank. Bank Iowa is also working with two other rural Iowa communities on similar projects.  

As connectivity becomes more important, the issue is sure to come to front-of-mind in future studies. With $65 billion earmarked for broadband in the current (Aug. 16, 2021) version of the compromise infrastructure bill being considered by Congress, internet access certainly is an important issue. Note that not all $65 billion is slated for rural communities — that detail will be worked out if and when the measure is enacted.  

Meanwhile, Bank Iowa has been a major supporter of initiatives ranging from childcare to construction of hospital wings to partnering through donations to local YMCA organizations. “There is huge demand for childcare and advances in wellness in many of our communities ” Plagge said. As the workforce expands, the need for childcare and focus on healthcare is a key part of attracting a workforce. “It definitely contributes to economic development,” he added.  

Challenges to development

Studies such as Bank Iowa’s research go a long way to defining some of the basic rural development hurdles that academic researchers have documented through the years. Among those challenges are institutional in-fighting and a perceived conflict with urban programs. Beth Walter Honadle outlined the challenges when she was director of the Center for Policy Analysis and Public Service at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She had worked on rural development policy as a researcher and program leader at USDA.  

Among her findings, published in the Journal of Regional Analysis & Policy, were that rural and urban interest groups and their elected representatives tended to see development as a competitive zero-sum game. Programs that benefited urban areas were seen as taking away from rural development and vice versa.   Not only was there concern over who got money, there were conflicts about who got credit for successes. She found rural interest groups, for a variety of reasons, were not able or willing to work together to advocate a cohesive message for rural development policy. The advocacy groups representing rural interests were too engaged in promoting their particular self-interests to be united. Studies like Bank Iowa’s offer a pathway around those issues.  

Sustaining growth

As Iowans look to sustain and enhance their community’s future, focusing on key concerns is one way to build to consensus and getting all parties on the same page. The study’s respondents had a generally positive outlook on the potential for improvement and growth in their area.  

Much of that bright outlook comes from community activities and the support that everyone, including implement dealers, bankers, merchants and individuals, gives to make “home” truly a home. Now is the time for those influencers to step up their game.  

“These are the places we live, call home and raise our families. We know that stronger Iowa economic development will result in stronger communities,” Plagge said.