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The end of the road for small towns

Eve Troeh Oct 10, 2011

The end of the road for small towns

Eve Troeh Oct 10, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The census data Amy Scott was telling us about a moment ago is a treasure trove of trends and tendencies in this country. Falling wealth is one. Here’s another: Cities and suburbs are growing faster than ever, and small towns are shrinking. They’ve had the same set of problems for decades. Young people leaving because the jobs have left as well. But just because something’s a trend doesn’t mean it can’t change.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk — and small town Iowa — Eve Troeh reports.

EVE TROEH: About 15,000 people live in Newton, Iowa. Been the same for a decade. Which is surprising since Newton lost more than 4,000 jobs. In 2007 — before the recession — its patron company, Maytag, went under.

AD: You know that’s the trouble with you Maytag washers and dryers. You’re too dependable. It’s not often that people need a Maytag repairman. That’s why we’re the loneliest guys in town.

And Newton is still lonely for Maytag. The company was the town for over a hundred years. Newton’s head of economic development, Frank Liebl, shows me the company’s legacy. Maytag Park. Maytag Pool. Maytag auditorium.

FRANK LIEBL: That failed in a couple of bond issues, and all of a sudden Maytag says I tell you what, we’ll pledge X amount of dollars if the community can go out and raise the rest, and just like that it passed.

That go-to partner is gone. But Liebl says the industrial legacy is still here — and still has value. Buildings for manufacturing, loyal, well-trained workers. When Maytag closed, the local news showed them tying their boots to the factory fence.

NEWS CLIP: You hire a Maytagger, you hire somebody who’ll work. That’s what I’m proud of.

Lots of Maytaggers are proud of Newton too. They wanted to stay. So, Liebl says, now they commute to wherever there’s work.

LIEBL: I’m not going to sell my house, I’m not going to move away. I’m gonna find job 30 miles down the road in Des Moines.

Des Moines. Newton always saw that big city as a threat to local business. Now, it wants to partner up, and get some economic runoff.

LIEBL: People today look at Des Moines as being an asset instead of being detrimental. If we’re a bedroom community, so what, that’s wonderful.

Wealthy Des Moines families bought many Maytag executive’s homes. Newton’s pushing its good schools and safe streets as an alternative to city life.

Joe Benesh grew up in Newton. He moved back this year, after working as an architect in Chicago and Miami. He wanted to raise a family the way he was raised.

JOE BENESH: In a community that was very affluent, and sort of plugged in and cultural.

He wants to keep Newton thinking big, not resign itself to being a suburb.

BENESH: I fear that sort of contraction as a thought process because, you know, we’re going to be Newton anymore. Things are going to be different.

He’s become a big hometown booster. But, towns like Newton can’t count on high-flyers like Benesh returning to the nest, says sociologist Richard Florida. He’s the author of books like “Rise of the Creative Class” and “Who’s Your City.”

RICHARD FLORIDA: A community will never win an economic development race by trying to bring back the people that left.

He says at age 25, highly educated workers are more likely to move away from small towns than move back.
By age 35, they’re three times less likely to return.

FLORIDA: The places that are successful offer something for the people that grew up there, and they offer something for new people.

It takes at least one generation to turn around a town, he says.

Newton is working on the “new.” Two wind power companies moved in, and hired a thousand workers. A NASCAR speedway hopes to lure tourists. And while more local kids leave for university, never to return, high school students can also now train for careers that lead to local jobs. In an old Maytag facility, they study to be nurses’ aides, caterers, or welders.

George Keith Simpson teaches welding at the community college. His class of high school juniors is full. They want to work after graduation.

GEORGE KEITH SIMPSON: Two years in high school, then one summer, then ready to go to the workforce. Welders are retiring faster than we can train them. There’s a waiting list for the students as soon as they finish the program.

Newton, Iowa, doesn’t expect a corporate patron to take Maytag’s place. It wants to lure smaller, more diverse companies. And it’s best asset may be its reputation as a town with good schools and nice homes that workers are happy to drive back to at the end of the day.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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