Welcome Home Summit Inspires Local Leaders to Attract & Retain New and Returning Residents

By Jason Neises, Community Development Coordinator, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque

There’s something special about living in rural Iowa, but how well do we tell our stories about life in small towns? Do we have a good understanding of the value of this lifestyle? How do we attract and retain new residents who share these values? On May 16 over 70 community leaders gathered at the Edgewood Locker Event Center to work together on finding some answers.

Last year, the Clayton County Foundation for the Future did some informal research about the hopes and dreams rural residents had for their community. One of the recurring themes was to attract and retain new and returning residents. The affiliates team at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque decided to convene a regional meeting around that topic to get a variety of community leaders engaged in developing some strategies. We wanted to explore why people had returned to their hometowns after living elsewhere and better understand what communities could do to encourage and support these new and returning residents to establish their lives in small towns.

We invited Ben Winchester, Research Fellow at University of Minnesota Extension, to present about the research he’s done about rural vitality. He has discovered that many of our rural communities are actually seeing a brain “gain” (not the “drain” that we often lament) when people return to raise their families in their hometowns. Ben is convinced that rural communities need to craft their own narrative about the high quality of life and benefits of living in small towns. As we’ve seen in the national media, if we don’t tell our story other people will, which has led to a prevailing narrative about our “dying” rural communities. Rather than complaining that we live in the “middle of nowhere,” we need to map out our assets and amenities and start talking about how we actually live in the “middle of EVERYWHERE” and have good access to jobs, schools, healthcare, dining, cultural attractions, outdoor recreation, shopping, and other elements that contribute to a high quality of life.

We also convened a panel discussion with rural residents who moved back to their hometown after living elsewhere or consciously chose to move into a rural community. Each person had a different reason for moving back, including proximity to family, cost of living, simpler and slower pace, natural beauty, and safety. Not only was it good to hear their motivations for moving back, but we were inspired by their commitment to increasing the quality of life in their communities to make it easier for other people to choose a life back in their hometown.

Another panel included representatives from agencies that provide resources for communities that need to change their narrative or improve quality of life in ways that would allow and encourage movement into small towns. Jason Neises from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque presented about the Community Heart & Soul program that helps small towns focus on what matters most to their residents and craft a blueprint for the future around these deeply-held values. Karla Organist introduced us to the Institute for Decision Making - Business & Community Services at the University of Northern Iowa which delivers tailored and innovative planning, technical assistance, applied research, and training to small towns throughout Iowa. Chuck Connerly gave an overview of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities which matches University of Iowa faculty, staff, and students with urban and rural communities to complete projects that enhance the sustainability of Iowa's communities while transforming teaching and learning at the university. Lora Friest from the Northeast Iowa RC&D spoke about ways they recognize opportunities and provide leadership to make Northeast Iowa a vibrant, place-based model for the nation and work with partners from throughout the region to explore economic development opportunities while at the same time protecting and enhancing natural resources.

Throughout the day summit participants worked in small groups to brainstorm ideas they’d like to try in their hometowns. It was wonderful to see the creativity and collaboration of community leaders as they shared ideas and began to apply their learning to dream up innovative ways to keep their small towns vital and thriving. Everyone walked away with new connections to like-minded leaders who could be partners as we work to create a more positive narrative for our region. This discussion will help us use the philanthropic resources in our counties to support initiatives that increase the quality of life and livability in our rural communities.

To learn more about what we discovered at the summit, please contact Jason Neises at jason@dbqfoundation.org.

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The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque envisions a vibrant and inclusive Dubuque region where everyone can thrive. Since 2002, we have inspired people to give back to their community, and we turn this generosity into lasting change across our region, increasing access to resources and opportunities that help all people succeed. 

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