I attended the Iowa Retail Summit in Ames yesterday, which was a day of learning anddiscussion about the retail climate in Iowa and successful retail initiatives underway in communities across our state. The audience was a mix of chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, business consultants, and business owners.
I'm still processing the information I learned yesterday, but wanted to share my takeaways from one session led by an Iowa State University sociology professor. A group of Iowa State University researchers has tracked changes in quality of life and social capital in 99 Iowa towns since 1994, surveying one town in each Iowa county every ten years and tracking the trends in those communities. All of the towns included in this study have a population less than 10,000 people, so it's very representative of rural Iowa. Their last study was completed in 2014, and she reviewed the key trends they found in 2014:
1) Social ties trump employment - people will move to a community for its quality of life rather than for their job. This can be a good thing for small towns with few employers, because their residents are willing to fill the jobs available or create their own jobs through consulting, telecommuting or starting businesses.
2) Quality of government services is improving - residents feel more optimistic about the services being built/expanded in their town than they did ten years ago.
3) Gas stations and convenience stores are the new gathering place - every community needs a gathering place, and gas stations have become that place in small towns that lack coffee shops and other hubs of activity.
4) Residents feel like they can count on each other, but not as much as they used to - that small-town feel of knowing your neighbors still exists, but it decreased from 2004 to 2014.
5) Lack of strong feelings about local leadership - this rating actually improved in 2014, showing that people are more satisfied with local leadership than they have been in past studies, but they still don't feel strongly one way or the other. The presenter noted that the increase in quality of government services is probably a contributing factor to residents feeling better about their local leadership than they have in past years.
6) Church attendance is decreasing - decreasing populations and a change of culture and diversity have affected churches in many communities.
7) Local shopping has decreased - those surveyed shopped out of town much more frequently in 2014 than they did in 2004 or 1994, which doesn't bode well for local business owners and the local economy.
8) Sense of community has decreased - related to #4 above, people feel less attached to their communities than they used to. This also probably attributes to the decrease in local shopping, since residents feel less loyal to their local town.
9) Civic engagement and social capital is declining - participation and leadership in the local community has declined, meaning a community is relying on the leadership, volunteerism and financial support of fewer residents than they used to.
10) Less attachment to community - this one is closely related to #8, and indicates that residents are less rooted in their town, making them more likely to move away.
Aren't these trends interesting? They are all trends that we need to be aware of as we work to ensure Grinnell is a thriving community for decades to come. The full study isn't online at the moment, but I'm told it will be online in the near future and I will include the link in a future email if you're curious to learn more.
Which of these items is most surprising or concerning to you? How do you think communities like ours can thrive because of or despite these trends?
P.S. Congratulations to Howard McDonough, the grand marshal for the 2016 4th of July parade! Please note that the road construction on Broad St. will affect the parade route this year - see our website for the modified route. We've posted all of the details for the Grinnell On The Fourth Celebration on this page of our website.