Memo from local officials to the Iowa Legislature:
Let us be.
That message came through loud and clear at the Register's "Changing Iowa" event Tuesday in Fort Dodge. We came asking for ideas on how the state can revitalize the main streets of Iowa's midsize cities.
Those micropolitan areas — defined as cities between 10,000 and 50,000 population — often get lost amid the attention that rural areas and metros demand. Yet they are hubs for manufacturing, education, health care and other services.
And many have suffered. An Iowa State University report shows that, when compared with rural and metropolitan areas, Iowa's 17 micropolitan areas had the lowest median household income and highest poverty and unemployment rates.
Cities like Fort Dodge aren't asking for a bailout, however. Just the opposite. Fort Dodge Mayor Matt Bemrich was among those repeating the "leave us alone" mantra:
Don't deprive us of property tax revenue — thanks to the cut in commercial property taxes — and then threaten to take away the backfill paid to offset that loss in revenue.
Don't preach the virtues of local control and then give us little say in the siting of hog confinements.
All Iowans, not just those in midsized cities, should be concerned about the knives being sharpened for the next Legislative session. The budget will be lawmakers' major focus, and the solution could be more cuts rather than addressing the state's revenue problem.
But lawmakers just might want to look up from the ledger and take a broader view. They might want to listen to folks in places like Fort Dodge. If lawmakers and other state officials really wanted to help these communities, they could:
Treat housing as an economic development tool. This is an issue facing many rural and midsize cities. Webster County has attracted more than $1 billion in private investment and 1,800 new jobs in the last four years, but it faces challenges attracting and keeping workers. Over and over, participants noted the need for affordable housing of many types.
Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, said he fears that the Legislature, in its zeal to push tax reform, will target tools that communities need. That includes the Workforce Housing Tax Credits, which are awarded to housing developers by Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Encourage the next generation of local leaders. Terry Lutz, a former Fort Dodge mayor, now works with communities around the nation as CEO at McClure Engineering in Des Moines. He identified the No. 1 factor in determining a community's strength: progressive leadership. "If you don't have strong leadership, you probably don't have a bright future," he said.
Iowans must think about how they're preparing our immigrant populations to move into those roles in county, city and, yes, state government.
More: An idea for rural Iowa business matchmaking: Link aging owners, immigrants
Support public education. That includes funding for the arts and industrial and tech education.
Promote the need for middle-skill jobs, which often require two-year degrees. These are plentiful in manufacturing, agribusiness and construction industries throughout Iowa.
Fix roads and improve other infrastructure, including providing incentives for better broadband service, which was mentioned repeatedly in our session.
Give communities incentives to work together regionally. Rather than taking a parochial outlook, participants at the Fort Dodge event brainstormed ways to collaborate with neighboring cities, pool resources, and identify strengths and weaknesses among adjacent communities.
Iowa is too small to be divided. Small towns, midsize cities and metros have more in common than they might think. And rather than fight among themselves for scant resources in the Legislature, they can identify common needs.
Maybe then, lawmakers will get the message.
Des Moines Register, Oct. 12.