By Michael Matthes
What does it mean when a community experiences a renaissance? Is it what the French mean, a rebirth? Is it just a second-wind? Is it one of those rare moments when corruption is pushed aside long enough for an economy to truly thrive? Or is it something else?
From Wikipedia April 2021:
“Members of the Creative Class enjoy a wide variety of activities (e.g., traveling, antique shopping, bike riding, and running) that highlight the collective interest in being participants and not spectators (Florida, 2002).”
It can be argued that “Street Level Culture” (what the creative class craves) is just about the only culture that exists in small towns or rural places. Many have argued that renaissance takes more than a sidewalk cafe and a bike trail; it requires a museum, some art, music, and philosophy to really achieve transcendence. But what happens when you experience a community in which all of that is happening at the same time? What if you add sailboat regattas, dinner cruises, hunting, fishing, and an entire day devoted to pancakes?
May I humbly present Centerville, Iowa.
By nearly every measurable thing, Centerville, Iowa, is a renaissance town. Pick your favorite metric, and I can supply evidence that this little corner of the world has it all figured out. I will save the most important for last (human beings), but one key metric folks use is economic activity. After all, can you really have a rebirth if no one can find a job?
The economy in the region surrounding Centerville (Appanoose County) has, as you might guess, a large and positive impact from agriculture. But what surprises is the size of the manufacturing base, the healthcare industry, and tourism (yes tourism). These industries comprise roughly equal parts of the economic activity occurring here.
Appanoose County is home to Lake Rathbun, the second largest lake in the State of Iowa. Centerville (the County Seat) is home to the largest town square in the world. This combo results in a shopping and recreation destination that attracts visitors and shoppers from around the country. Taxable sales increase every year and have reached an all time high (even with the negative impacts of COVID).
Unemployment stays around 4% and because of that, many employers recruit new staff from outside the county and state. There are enough housing starts and other construction projects that companies in the trades (carpentry, electrical, plumbing, roofing, etc.) almost never advertise. They simply don’t need to; they are booked solid all year by word of mouth alone.
Did I mention that Centerville has the largest city square in the world? We here in Centerville encourage downtown building owners to renovate their historic buildings through the use of matching grants for facade improvements. This effort helps keep the retail economy attractive to shoppers. And by “largest”, imagine a town square along the lines of a Norman Rockwell painting, now double the size such that it has a row of parking in front of the shops, a one-way street next to that, two rows of parking next to that, another one-way street, then yet another row of parking spaces, which forms the space between wide walkable sidewalks. Now line the sidewalks with retail shops, barber shops, restaurants, bakeries, flower shops, antique stores, etc. and you will begin to understand how Centerville has three times the shops and shoppers as most other towns with town squares in America.
For my money, partnerships are one of the most important metrics needed to tell if a place is really experiencing a renaissance. This community has an amazing ability to sustain historic renovation efforts because they have solid partners. The “Save the Ritz'' campaign raised more than half a million dollars to repair and, dare I say, re-birth this amazing Mission Revival style grand theatre from the 1920’s. This partnership between the Main Street Centerville organization and a local arts organization called Appanoose County Coalition for the Arts, is the kind of partnership found in most small town renaissance efforts. But here, they have managed to maintain it for the long haul.
A current example is the transformation of the Hubbard House. With the partnership of the City government, the State government, the Chamber, Main Street Centerville, Alliant Energy, and the new private sector owner, this one time condemned flop house will be transformed into loft style modern apartments, a wellness studio, and a taproom - a perfect example of mixed use that creates a vibrant cultural scene where none now exists.
I also contend that one major test of a community in renaissance, is its willingness to invest in infrastructure. Over the past few years, the local community in Centerville partnered with the State of Iowa to repave 10 miles of Highway 5, and Appanoose County and Centerville passed a tax ballot to replace the old and badly undersized Law Center (shared Sheriff & Police offices and Jail). They also passed a school ballot to rebuild and renovate their grammar and high schools.
Bringing up partnerships again, Centerville has utilized a public/private partnership to build new, state of the art student apartments (Traxler Hall) at Indian Hills Community College where private capital builds facilities and the College rents to own the resulting dorm. The city and county (rare in America) work together to remove dilapidated housing, then partner with the Community College to build new, beautiful 3 bedroom 2 bath houses.
As an aside, the College has doubled enrollment over the last few years due to dynamic leadership and a willingness to embrace partners and the communities they serve so well.
Street Level Culture
What if Richard Florida is right? What if street level culture is the way to know if you have a vibrant creative class? Centerville certainly has the type of street level culture Florida describes; it has sidewalk cafes, a walkable and vibrant downtown with art installations, murals, great trails, great parks with excellent disc golf amenities. It also has more elaborate experiential elements to compound the impact on residents and visitors; it has Pancake Day, an 11,000 acre recreational lake, Centerville Summer Cinema (free movies on the square), and a hundred other volunteer experiences that give a sense of fulfillment to the volunteer and a sense of community to everyone else.
What’s Pancake Day? I’m glad you asked! It’s always the last Saturday in September and it includes food trucks, a giant parade, a pageant that crowns a Queen, Escort, and Pages, and of course the best FREE pancakes money can’t buy. It started in 1949 as a way for local businesses to say (and demonstrate) thanks to their customers for their patronage in the previous year. The griddles are run by volunteers who use salt pork to grease the griddles, and make large, perfect pancakes. You can even go through the Gourmet Line to get bacon, fruit, and fancy types of syrup if you like. If you want to travel back in time about 70 years, check out this silent movie from Pancake Day 1953.
Quality of Life
The quality of life in Iowa is something of an open secret; meaning it’s not a secret but most folks outside of Iowa don’t talk about it very much. In fact, a lot of folks outside of Iowa don’t really know which state Iowa is. I can’t begin to count how many people I’ve been speaking with on the phone or through zoom who have asked me if we grow potatoes (that’s Idaho btw).
I’ve always loved what W.P Kinsella wrote about Iowa in his wonderful book, “Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to Iowa”; “Is this heaven? No, It’s Iowa.” It’s so near the mark, they kept it in the movie version, Field of Dreams.
The truth of it is, the Midwest in general and Southern Iowa in particular are bucolic places where the air itself seems to be made of relaxation, peace of mind, and even joy. It’s a place where the sun sets over a green field of corn or soybeans, the humidity creates a hazy cloud over the field and moisturizes skin, the frogs and crickets sing just out of sight. Come stay for a while and I’ll show you what I mean.
Centerville is a place where the starting wage at any of our manufacturers enables a person to afford a new 3 bedroom 2 bath house, on one salary. That’s not a typo. How many places in the country can say as much?
A 10 minute drive from the Centerville square gets you to Lake Rathbun, 11,000 acres of water, with a full service Marina and a sustainably built and operated resort. Spending weekends on the lake is a pleasure nearly everyone in the surrounding counties treasure. If you spend any amount of time there, you will begin to refer to yourself as a “Rath bum”.
In this new age of remote working, you can live where you want to live and still work for the company you want to work for (or yourself). When you can work from anywhere, why not live in paradise, er, I mean Iowa?
And finally, the most important thing:
Any description of the most famous Renaissance (the one that happened in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries) will mention that a renaissance is sparked by a focus on humanity and the study of human beings.
The story of rural places has, for a long while, been dominated by the idea that the young leave for the big city as soon as they can. While this is largely still true, more and more high school graduates are staying put in the community they love. The community college in Centerville has doubled its student body in just three years. It is due in part to a charismatic and effective leadership team, but is also due to the fact that the big city no longer has the allure it once held.
There is also a growing phenomena of the “boomerang generation”; 20 somethings who have put in a good five years away from Centerville, but decided the quality of life was so much better where they left, they came back. Sometimes, you can go home again.
These folks return and make big contributions to the community; they are electricians, educators, tourism professionals; they run print shops, construction companies, local news organizations, and coach soccer teams. They work for international corporations like Chipotle and they own cafe’s. They work as nurses and occupational therapists. This influx of young people keeps the community vibrant and breathes life into the idea that something exciting is happening in Centerville.
I have been lucky enough to work in two communities in my life that experienced a sustained renaissance (Des Moines, Iowa and Columbia, Missouri). As retirement begins to form more and more of my personal strategic thinking, I couldn’t be more content and delighted to be working in Centerville and Appanoose County. I encourage you to come see for yourself! When you do, make sure to stop in and see me in the Chamber office on the SouthWest side of the square.
Michael Matthes is the Executive Director of PACT (Promoting Appanoose and Centerville Together), lives a very short stroll away from Lake Rathbun, and has worked in the development and city government industries for 3 decades.