View from Iowa: Rural is the next place to pioneer (and not at the expense of urban)

View from Iowa: Rural is the next place to pioneer (and not at the expense of urban)
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Hi, I live in urban Iowa, work in rural America, and I have some hot takes.

Rural needs housing. High speed internet. Day care. Grocery stores. Medical clinics. Social spaces. Entrepreneurs and large industry. Parks and recreation. Sewers and sidewalks. The same that all communities need. What’s amazing in this current election cycle is that both parties are at a loss on how to practically address this.

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The right gives lip service to the plight of rural America as it knows that many of its citizens share similar values with them. The left sees more value in doubling down on urban centers. There are exceptions to both, of course — see Rep. Khanna (D-Calif.), Rep. Axne (D-Iowa) and former Sen. Heitkamp (D-N.D.) on the left, and Sen. Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Graves (R-La.) on the right. Save for them and a few others, both sides misunderstand rural America as a whole.

The Washington Post recently asked which direction the democratic candidates should go — I would argue they can help both rural and urban at the same time.

Economists tell us that rural is dying, that it has no chance to survive, and we should just stop asking for help and move to a city like the rest of humanity. Putting the condescension aside, economists get paid to make predications based on market trends, and in this case, they are nearly correct. Should nothing change, their crystal balls will keep right on glowing. Though the small matter of space could extinguish their light.

The major cities on our coasts are oversaturated and have been for decades. The last 20 years saw the growth of second-tier cities (Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Austin, Denver) that quickly gained population as generations were forced out of New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, etc. Today, these second cities are oversaturated themselves, and it’s because they changed the quality of life that they offer. 20 years ago, no one wanted to freeze in Minneapolis. Two years ago, they hosted the Super Bowl. 

Today, the rise of third-tier cities is upon us. Des Moines, Boise, Albuquerque, Birmingham, Little Rock, Madison. These are the cities that are gaining population as quickly as their predecessors. My belief is that around 2030, these cities will also become oversaturated. When that occurs, the only areas left to repopulate are in rural America.

Rural America is the next place to pioneer. This can be viewed through various perspectives — industrial, entrepreneurial, cultural, agricultural — whatever the concept, you can live and play for less in rural.

And competition for new ideas, comparatively, is almost non-existent. Many people who live in urban centers came from smaller communities. If you are a creative or an entrepreneur, the best place you could be, financially, is in a rural area. Still you leave behind your peers, access to venture capital, and the quality of life you need to fuel your passion.

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This is the reality that is not being discussed in the political realm. People will have to move to rural over the next 10-20 years for the simple fact that we are running out of space in urban centers. The current debate in California is so insane that residents are willing to remake their residential areas to comply with an out-of-control real estate market that needs to add 3.5 million homes by 2025. Low wage workers are being pushed further away from their workplaces. Even if the laws are changed, the state will still need to subsidize developers for more affordable housing, and as pointed out by several economists, this “upzoning” will not lead to economic growth. Rather than change zoning laws to allow for more cramped, ugly living, let’s use the expansive landscape in the heartland of our country.

When politicians on either side approach rural, they typically talk about jobs and how they are committed to bringing them to rural areas. Great, that’s solid. But in many cases, rural locations already have quality jobs with full benefits. And sometimes, local businesses are even poised to expand. The problem isn’t creating jobs. The problem is finding people to take the jobs. It turns out no matter how much you pay someone, a single 25-year-old is not moving to a town of 5,000 people if there is nowhere to socialize, no modern rental units, poor access to broadband and an increasing sense of desperation. It doesn’t matter how many jobs you have if there’s nowhere to live — let’s have our elected officials address these issues.

Economists, unfortunately, are correct. Should we not change course now, these towns will die. Our message needs to be complemented by practical approaches for this shift. Both parties should be trying to court rural and urban at the same time, indeed the longer we don’t, the worse our political divide becomes.

Revitalizing rural America is a noble goal. There is a larger aspiration at hand — and it goes beyond economics. The goal is unsorting — people of different ideologies living amongst each other. We need to hear opinions and ideas of those who disagree with us in everyday life. Not to upset us, but to encourage us, to embolden us, to help us understand that because our ideas are divided does not mean we are unable to have a relationship.

So hey, presidential hopefuls, offer practical ideas to help rural and urban folks at the same time.

Here are a few: combine public and private resources to create a housing revolving loan fund; recreate a Rural Electrification Act of 1936 for broadband fiber by partnering with rural electrical coops and telecoms; provide incentives for entrepreneurs like equity in properties and opportunity zone funding with an emphasis on rural; change our federal historic tax credit program to allow for vacant school buildings (of which there are more than 5,000 nationally) to be used 100 percent for housing; invest in public capital for bio-science industries; recreate the Works Progress Administration and build jobs in all disciplines and fields all across the country; create rural coding academies (like Base Camp in Mississippi and the Forge in Iowa) that offer an alternative to higher education and give high paying jobs to rural workers; support national programs for nurses, doctors, pharmacists, plumbers, welders, carpenters, artists, police officers and teachers to relocate to rural, and so many more. 

There: Problem solved.

Zachary Mannheimer, of Des Moines, Iowa, is the Principal Community Placemaker at McClure. Mannheimer runs a team of 7 who use Creative Placemaking as a tool for rural revitalization, currently in 18 states and 1 province of Canada. He serves on the boards of Iowa Rural Development Council and Iowa Public Radio, and is founder of the Des Moines Social Club. Follow him on Twitter @zackmannheimer