Rural revitalization



Small towns and rural communities are continually looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life and build on local assets. Agriculture forms the foundation in many of these communities, and farm profitability has declined over the past few years, presenting even more challenges. But we found three towns—Allerton, Iowa, and Chillicothe and Maryville, Mo.—that are not only holding their own but also finding ways to thrive.

Twelve years ago, the people of Allerton, Iowa, population 550, restored what is now the Old Time Soda Fountain.

“Once the town decided the soda fountain was worth saving, everyone got behind it,” said Lorena Blount, a retired English teacher. The restoration is just one example of how Allerton residents have worked togeth­er to improve quality of life, as measured by an Iowa State University research project.

It took a few years for volunteers to restore the former drug store and malt shop building, which features a 1952 soda fountain fronted by a classic red counter, padded round stools and a few tables.

Since it opened in 2008, volunteers young and old have served customers every summer Saturday night. The place was hopping until this year, when it remained closed because of COVID-19 concerns. The Blounts and other volunteers are committed to reopening when the pandemic subsides.

“Something about the space encourages sociability,” Lorena said.

She and her husband, Ross, began working with commu­nities as Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa decades ago. Ross, a retired minister and farmer, rents out his cropland these days but continues to raise cattle and hay and is a member of MFA Agri Services in Corydon. He’s also pres­ident of the board of directors of the non-profit Old Time Soda Fountain. Supporters contributed more than $40,000 and countless hours of elbow grease to restore the building. A retired druggist filled the shelves with his collection of old medicines, and an Allerton school alumnus donated an automated red-and-white awning for the storefront.

When Allerton schools closed in 1966, students trans­ferred to Corydon, six miles away, and many young people have moved away to find jobs. But Allerton roots run deep.

“Allerton school alumni have been generous in donating as a monument to their youth, when they hung out at the soda fountain,” Lorena said. Last year, eight students from Corydon High School volunteered to work at the fountain alongside the usual older cadre.

This isn’t the only example of how Allerton citizens—cur­rent and former—keep the town going. In the 1980s, locals dismantled a large building in Ames, free for the taking, and reassembled it in Allerton. The Centennial Building now hosts events for up to 400 people. Lorena co-directs a community play that draws 1,000 people at three perfor­mances each spring.

Allerton is shrinking smart

David Peters, who has authored research on 99 towns in Iowa, cites Allerton as an example of a small town that’s “shrinking smart.”

“Allerton’s population dropped by over 15% in the last decade,” said Peters, a University of Missouri graduate and associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “However, it also experienced a large rise in quality of life over the same period.”

In his role as an Extension rural sociologist at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Peters works with colleagues to survey one town in each Iowa county every five years. They ask residents to rate their hometown’s quality of jobs, medical ser­vices, schools, housing, government, and child and senior services—subjective issues compared to wage and employment data that economists usually gather.

“We were surprised to discover that a strong social infrastructure, rather than economic or physical factors, determines whether resi­dents report greater quality of life,” Peters said.

As he explained, some thriving towns in the study are growing be­cause of natural amenities such as lakes, rivers or woods, or because they’re near large cities. Other places, like Allerton, are shrinking in population, but residents are committed to building quality of life. The Blounts call it “social capital.”

“The good thing about social infrastructure is that it’s inexpensive to create,” Peters said. “For example, the odds of recruiting a manu­facturer are pretty slim. By contrast, investing in social infrastructure almost always pays a dividend, making your town more attractive to new residents and businesses.”

Ross Blount agrees with that conclusion, pointing to Allerton Mayor Doug Downs, who serves with young people on the town council and welcomes everyone to voice their opinions. The same is true with Fire Chief Greg Fortune, who drew in young volunteers to bring new life to the fire department.

“I like what Dr. Peters says,” Ross added. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to build quality of life. In Allerton, it has also required a balance of young and older volunteers.”

Allerton isn’t perfect, Downs admits. “We have some old houses and buildings that need to be torn down,” he said. “But we make everyone feel welcome.”

Chillicothe builds strong foundations

With about 9,700 residents, Chillicothe, Mo., has grown by more than 2% since the 2010 census. It’s larger than Allerton, but it’s still a small town in Andrew McCrea’s book.

A farmer, agricultural leader, speaker, broadcaster and author, McCrea published “The Total Town Makeover” in 2019. In the book, he portrays Chillicothe as a place that succeeds in part by raising funds through foundations.

“Chillicothe is known as the birthplace of sliced bread,” McCrea said, referring to Chillicothe Baking Company, the first baker in the world to sell sliced bread to the public. “Perhaps the next best things to sliced bread are Chillicothe’s family foundations.”

McCrea, who raises cattle and row crops in Maysville, Mo., and serves on his local MFA Agri Services board, has spent much of his broadcasting and speaking career visiting rural communities across the United States. He lists steps that towns like Chillicothe often take to succeed:

  • Endowments or foundations provide seed money for projects.
  • Leaders pull together in one direction.
  • Leaders communicate short-term and long-term goals to the community.
  • Leaders build momentum through social media and other efforts that reach out to people who have moved away.
  • Townspeople commit to building a positive culture, includ­ing such simple gestures as smiling more.

Ed Turner, a Chillicothe real estate appraiser, serves as presi­dent of the Chillicothe Industrial Development Corporation and other boards. He remembers attending a 1989 meeting of local bankers, lawyers and accountants where the idea of forming foundations to keep wealth in the community began to blossom.

The leaders decided the community needed a YMCA.

“We went to the national YMCA for help, and they said towns of our size are not usually successful,” Turner said. “They suggested we start as a storefront and use churches, parks and school facilities to host activities.”

Chillicothe surprised the national Y staff by raising $150,000 for the storefront in six weeks. Within two years, five foun­dations formed to support building the Y’s own facilities, and Turner ran a campaign that raised $3 million.

Today, the local YMCA’s 6,000 members enjoy two gyms with weights, exercise machines and a walking track. The Y also built a swimming pool, a football and soccer complex, and branches in two nearby towns.

“The Y was a springboard,” Turner said. “People could see what philanthropy could do for a community.”

Today, McCrea reports, 19 family foundations and trusts support Chillicothe, and additional foundations fund the community, hospital and schools. Farmers, who often have wealth tied up in land, were among those forming family foundations. Federal law re­quires foundations to spend 5% of their assets each year or risk being taxed. “Do the math, and that’s a sizable amount of money that goes back into the community every year,” McCrea said.

In addition to the Y, the community built a 24-lane bowling alley, an 18-hole golf course and the Litton Agri-Science Learning Center. Turner said Chilli­cothe has also revitalized its downtown, attracted a large solar farm and other in­dustries, and commissioned 26 murals that draw in tourists. Sales tax receipts grew by 9% in the first four months of the latest fiscal year, he added.

“A lot of communities have the same opportunities as Chilli­cothe,” Turner said. “But if you don’t have everyone pulling the same wagon, it won’t happen. You have to fight people who say ‘We used to do it this way.’ You need what I call The Big Mo— momentum—and you need to bring young people into leader­ship positions.”

Maryville stands its ground

Many successful towns in McCrea’s The Total Town Makeover benefit from being trading centers for surrounding rural communities and farmers. The author says Maryville, Mo., population 12,000, is one example, describing the town as “a hub for economic activity in northwestern Missouri.”

While Maryville’s population declined slightly in recent years, leaders are working to continue to attract business from the region.

“Surrounding counties and communities are an important part of our economic viability,” said Josh McKim, executive director with Nodaway County Economic Development Corporation, which created a revolving fund to move projects forward throughout northwestern Missouri.

Tenaska recently installed a 100-turbine wind farm near Maryville and contributes $15,000 a year to the community. Another wind farm also cropped up in the area. Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corporation’s Maryville plant continues to grow, McKim said.

“Over the last five years, we’ve had nearly $150 million in commer­cial and public investment beyond the two wind projects, which totaled $600 million,” he said. “We have to invest, and we’ve got to take risks. If we don’t, what’s the point? Small towns won’t be here in a hundred years without those investments.”

Maryville has seen its ups and downs. Some big box stores left town, but McKim says that local retail has seen a resurgence as a result. One such entrepreneur is Stephanie Campbell, who in 2016 opened Blue Willow Boutique, a women’s clothing store, on Main Street across from the historic Nodaway County Courthouse. The Kansas City native relocated to Maryville with her fiancé, Kent Yount, and says she wanted to do more than just reside in the community. She wanted to invest in it.

“Maryville is an awesome place with great people, but we needed more places to shop,” Campbell said. “The downtown is the heart of any community, and Maryville deserves to have a great downtown. Everything else succeeds when the heart is strong.”

Business has far surpassed her expec­tations, Campbell said, and she has since acquired adjacent space to expand her retail shop and storage and opened a second Blue Willow location in nearby St. Joseph. She and Yount, along with other partners, also plan to open a craft brewery on the Maryville square. They’ve purchased a vacant corner building and are in the pro­cess of renovating it into a taphouse with second-story apartments.

“I firmly believe in this community and the potential for small businesses like ours to succeed,” Campbell said. “We can’t compete with the big-box stores, but we can do what they can’t do, and that’s have a relationship. My small business friends and I all invest in this community—schools and ball teams and kids. All of those things are important for a strong, healthy town.”

Compared to other rural places, Maryville has a young population, McKim said, with a median age of 24. Northwest Missouri State University, which has more than 7,000 students, also boosts Maryville’s economy.

“We have actively engaged with young professionals and university students when planning for the future,” McKim says. “We’re doing well with our sales tax and unemployment numbers. Our goal is to see population growth in the region. Hopefully we’re doing things right.”

Coping with COVID-19

The economies of Allerton, Chillicothe and Maryville seem to be stable, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the agricultural downturn.

Darin Crackenberger, manager of MFA Agri Services of Chillicothe, re­ports that MFA business is steady. “We placed tables in front of checkouts to encourage social distancing,” he said, “and in some cases we bring items out to people who park out front.”

Jared Grimes, assistant manager at MFA Agri Services of Maryville, add­ed that Missouri MFA stores were shut down for 30 days at the beginning of the pandemic, but were then deemed essential businesses and sales mostly returned to normal. “We’ve changed our daily habits, keeping social distance and wiping down surfaces frequently,” he said.

Iowa State’s David Peters confirms that so far, rural places have been more fortunate than urban areas.

“Most of the towns in our study have been largely unaffected by COVID,” Peters said. “Few wear masks, and most think the pandemic will bypass their town. I pray they are right, because if COVID-19 comes, it will hit them hard as most have many older residents. The larger economic impact—a downturn in international trade and commodity prices—would also hit agriculture hard.”

Stephanie Campbell, owner of Blue Willow Boutique in downtown Maryville, said that while the pandemic has hurt many small businesses, it has also caused many consumers to shop closer to home.

“I think you’re seeing a kind of renaissance across the country,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, people are returning to who they know, like and trust. They want to see us all still be here when this is over.”

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