The great rural Iowa shrinking

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Wanda Moeller, a Buena Vista graduate and former Storm Lake journalist, stopped by the office Friday a woman of leisure. After a long and distinguished career as an editor and publisher in Iowa and Minnesota at newspapers weekly and daily, her job as publisher of the Ottumwa Courier recently was eliminated. The publisher of the Clinton paper, owned by the same chain, will oversee Ottumwa, too.

The reason why was detailed last Sunday in The Des Moines Register with a feature on retail sales that focused on Ottumwa. It talked about how the mall is losing all its anchor stores. Moeller felt it with a huge drop in preprinted insert business. It meant her demise as the bean counters at corporate in Alabama redlined her salary.

In a year or two they will realize what Wanda meant to their business, and how she lived for the newspaper. She loves publishing special sections and organizing everything from bridal fairs to tractor shows. She produced far more revenue — not to mention community goodwill — than they could know.

Wanda will do fine. She is not above cleaning bathrooms, which she did at the Courier as publisher. She simply serves as a coincidental illustration of how rural Iowa is hollowing out.

In fact, 10 of the state’s 15 micropolitan areas — places like Fort Dodge, Clinton, Spencer, Ottumwa and Mason City — are not showing growth by most measures but indeed are contracting. Most micropolitan areas are showing less per-capita sales year to year, population loss and job erosion.

Storm Lake is among the few micros posting growth. Spencer’s population and trade is contracting. Storm Lake’s job base and population are growing, and it still pulls in more retail trade than a town its size would be expected to do, according to Iowa State University researcher Liesl Eathington.

“The micropolitan areas collectively are really struggling,” said economist Dave Swenson, Eathington’s colleague. He said they have not recovered from the 2008 Great Recession, and actually have been treading water or worse the better part of 40 years.

Webster County (Fort Dodge) is losing the most, Swenson says. Ottumwa’s population has dropped in half over the past 40 years. The Courier used to have 20,000 paid circulation, now it is down to 8,000 despite Moeller’s herculean efforts to attract readers.

“For micropolitan areas with excessive dependence on manufacturing and agriculture, there simply is no Act Two,” Swenson told me. “They have to shrink. They have to get down to the size that the economy can support.”

Nail spas occupy the Ottumwa mall, not Younkers anymore. What you can’t get immediately at Walmart you can get in two days from Amazon — with no sales tax to boot.

Swenson says the key is to diversify the economy and concentrate on knowledge jobs — the professions. Towns with sizable medical complexes attract shoppers. You come to Storm Lake to see the lawyer and the accountant and go to the bank. And then you pick something up on the way out of town, or you have supper here before heading home. Storm Lake has been able to build that sort of critical mass as a regional center over the years. Other towns, like Spencer, are trying to adjust to a new retail/manufacturing reality.

Storm Lake has been able to do it through a growing education and health care complex. It is a regional entertainment and recreational center. And, because of immigrants it is constantly introducing new businesses into the mix. Our retail sales, subtracting for inflation, peaked in 1980 at abut $20,000 per capita, fell appreciably through the Farm Crisis and recovered, now standing at $16,400 per capita in real terms. That’s about 25% above the state average. So although The City Beautiful’s retail environment is not as robust as it was pre-Farm Crisis, it is better than most places its size. Far better off.

Storm Lake is an anomaly in rural Iowa, like Spirit Lake and Fairfield. For the rest, “it just doesn’t look good at all,” Swenson said, when considering retail sales, personal income and population change.

He notes that the county seats just smaller than Storm Lake, like Algona or Humboldt, appear to have stabilized in retail trade and core population. They still have a hospital and courthouse and big box store. Their challenge is losing young people despite having available jobs and replacing them with …

The answer lies in Storm Lake. Education. New blood. New ideas, more recreational opportunities, more diverse population. But that is not the direction, obviously, that rural Iowa wants to go. So it shrinks, as it has for a lifetime.