ISU faculty are creating a rural renaissance community index to curb out-migration

AMES, Iowa -- Recent floods have devastated significant portions of Iowa, and yet a greater long term consequence, particularly in rural areas, may be a flood of citizens moving out of state.

A group of 12 Iowa State University researchers is working on a three-year project designed to stop the flood of Iowa's most precious resource -- its human capital. The rural renaissance community index is designed to identify some of the greatest attributes found in rural Iowa communities through an interactive database. In the process, the index will provide some of the recently flooded towns and cities with a blueprint of how best to build and strengthen infrastructures that could stimulate future business and population growth.

"This is really rural community revitalization, across the board," said Ann Marie Fiore, a professor in Iowa State's apparel, educational studies and hospitality management (AESHM) program and a co-lead investigator on the project.

The Iowa State researchers are using secondary data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Education and the Department of Natural Resources, as well as primary data from focus groups of community leaders in five successful rural communities -- Decorah, Iowa Falls, Le Mars, Muscatine and Spirit Lake -- to build their community index.

"The hard part was developing the focus groups, which required that we identify what communities within Iowa we should study," Fiore said. "We started with our first 129 communities from our study and said, 'OK of these, which are really doing the best?' So we looked at issues such as population growth within those communities and economic pull-factors and whether they were doing well economically. We also looked at cities that seem creative and really have a large creative class."

In search of the creative class

In his best-selling book "The Rise of the Creative Class," author Richard Florida defines the "creative class" as a group rich in human capital that includes entrepreneurs and those paid to do creative work -- scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, designers and knowledge-based professionals. Florida, who spoke at ISU last fall, theorizes that rural communities (populations under 50,000) must maintain and further develop community lifestyle infrastructural and cultural features that sustain and attract the creative class.

The Iowa State researchers were studying their focus group communities for those same creative class features.

"We looked at whether there was something positive economically going on in a community, then we looked at whether there was this nucleus of creative class people and what had drawn them," said Linda Niehm, also a professor in the AESHM program and a co-lead investigator. "What are those community attractiveness factors that appeal to the creative class?"

"What we can't forget is that it's the schools and it's the natural environment. These things also attract people to the community," Fiore said. "So it's really important that you have a good downtown with businesses that attract people in terms of restaurants and retail. But a lot of what we heard from our focus groups was this idea of 'I want someplace that I can go and play with my kids and go to the park.'"

The ISU project also addresses Iowa's brain drain problem -- the loss of educated young people, particularly from rural areas, to other states. The researchers conducted focus groups with graduating Iowa State students from rural communities, representing at least three majors from each of the six undergraduate colleges.

Plans for an interactive Web site by Spring 2009

Fiore says there are plans to convert the data into an interactive rural renaissance community index Web site by Spring 2009. The site will be designed to benefit leaders from other rural Iowa communities, defining elements they may want to consider adding to their towns to stimulate future growth.

"We have the data for the index -- that's all been collected. But we now need the funds to create a tangible Web site -- the product or vehicle for delivery," she said.

"This information isn't going to be static, so if these communities have a demographic change or the addition of a new industry, we'd like to have a link from this Web site to that community for some augmentation of that information," Niehm said.

The project is an outgrowth of work Fiore, Niehm and other ISU faculty and students have conducted in the "Main Street Iowa" project, a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization within the state, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

The initial seed money to fund the rural renaissance community index project's first year was provided by the Entrepreneurial Program Initiative from ISU's College of Human Sciences. The researchers will summarize their first-year research in a report to the college later this summer.