Have you ever wondered why some towns thrive and others do not?
I spent decades consulting with small town nonprofit organizations to find and secure grants, and I was always interested to see which towns were vibrant and alive (and also more successful at getting grants) – and which were not.
Then, I turned 50 and inexplicably moved to a small town in rural Iowa that, if you looked in the dictionary under “depressed,” you would see a picture of it.
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The experience of living in a declining town in state with a TON of small towns – some of which are thriving more than others – gave me a new perspective and insight into the qualities a town needs to have to crack the code to success.
The population size of a town has less to do with its ability to thrive than the quality of its residents. A town of go-getters is going to be more successful than a town of ne’er-do-wells, no matter how large or small the population is.
To further explore the phenomenon of why some towns thrive and others do not, I conducted an informal study of two southeastern Iowa towns. The towns – Mount Pleasant and Washington – are located 30 miles apart and are roughly the same size.
Using both factual and experiential data, I identified 7 distinguishing characteristics of a flourishing town – and warning signs of a declining town. Read on to find out why some towns thrive and others do not in this “tale of two towns”!
Some towns thrive and others do not based on how effectively they attract residents to offset attrition. Based on projections of the latest U.S. Census estimates, Mount Pleasant’s current population is 8,604, a decrease of .56% from their 2010 population of 8,652. The current population of Washington is 7,118, representing a drop of about 2% from their 2010 population of 7,261. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll notice that Mount Pleasant saw a 3.74% spike in population between 2015 and 2019, while Washington did not see anywhere near this level of growth during that time.
Educational and healthcare facilities
Some towns thrive and others do not based on their investment in quality educational and healthcare facilities. Mount Pleasant is home to a private four-year liberal arts college, Iowa Wesleyan University, as well as a campus of Southeastern Community College. Henry County Health Center in Mount Pleasant is a 74-bed facility while the Washington County Hospital has only 22-beds.
Washington has the Washington County Regional Center, which is part of Kirkwood Community College. For the longest time, a billboard on the road leading into town said, “This way to your future” which was obviously meant to be pointing at the community college, but was, in fact, pointing out to an empty pasture.
You can tell that Mount Pleasant has more going on than Washington by each town’s downtown square. The spacious square in Mount Pleasant feels vibrant and inviting. The downtown square has a lot of local businesses, including several restaurants and antique stores with some good finds. Washington’s cramped square has a lot more vacant storefronts and feels generally lackluster. There are a few restaurants and some funky little businesses that have wonky hours and not much of an identity. The square has a fountain in the middle, which is nice, but it’s also unfortunately where the meth deals go down.
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Some towns thrive and others do not based on how much, or how little, they are doing in economic development. Without question, Mount Pleasant’s economic development efforts leave Washington’s in the dust. Mount Pleasant has brought in a long list of national, and even international, companies to town. These include Aldi’s, Dunkin Donuts, Best Western, AmericInn, Quality Inn, Super 8, Scooter’s Coffee, A&W, Hardees, and Cinnabon. Not only that, they have a new updated HyVee grocery store and Walmart Supercenter.
In Washington, it’s more like economic develop-whaaat? Washington has no hotel chains – just the Hawkeye Motel. When the Taco Bell closed, the building remained vacant for years until Jersey Mike’s Subs came in to duke it out with the existing grubby Subway. Over five years, Dollar General expanded from one to two stores and a Dollar Tree opened next to the older Walmart Supercenter. One Casey’s building was demolished and a brand spanking new Casey’s was built down the street. The HyVee and Fareway grocery stores and a second Casey’s have all seen better days.
Location is another reason why some towns thrive and others do not. Mount Pleasant is located immediately off Highway 218, which runs from Iowa City to Keokuk in the far southeastern corner of the state. Located 8 miles off Highway 218 and not along or close to any other major highways, Washington is much more isolated.
Some towns thrive and others do not based on how many visitors pass through and stop in town. Mount Pleasant is one of the stops along Amtrak’s California Zephyr route, which runs from Chicago to Oakland. The town may not get a huge economic boost from having an Amtrak station, but it’s better than not having one. Washington is not on an Amtrak route, although a lot of freight trains run through town.
A town reflects the level of investment of its residents. Perhaps THE most important measure of why some towns thrive and others do not is the degree to which the residents care about their community. You can tell when you drive or walk around Mount Pleasant that its residents actually care. They feel a sense of pride in their community.
The same can’t be said for Washington.
A prime example of this is Washington’s historic 1897 State movie theater, the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the WORLD. No one cares that the town has this amazing economic and cultural development opportunity. A thriving town would have formed a nonprofit organization to purchase, preserve, restore and operate the theater. But, since Washington is not a thriving town, the State is owned and operated by a corporation out of Des Moines that could give two shits about the theater’s history.
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