Iowa Retail Initiative piloting ‘rebooted’ program in two communities

Rural downtown streetscapeAccording to the Iowa Small Business Development Center, there are 266,382 small businesses employing 641,288 people in Iowa, and nearly 50% of all workers in the state are employed by a small business. Of those small businesses, only one-tenth are retail; however, retail has an outsized impact on community character and quality of life.

Communities understand that supporting local retail is key to becoming and remaining economically viable. However, most local small retail business owners are so busy with the day-to-day details of running a business, they don’t have the time to equip and empower themselves and their employees with key foundational skills and tools. Without this knowledge, businesses stagnate and local economies suffer and decline.

Enter the Iowa Retail Initiative (IRI).

Administered by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development (CED) program, IRI provides the foundation for local retail decision makers to assess and work to address their community’s existing and future retail districts. The program is currently being piloted in the community of Lenox and in Wright County.

Started in 2013 as an ISU Extension and Outreach initiative, IRI has recently gone through an update or “reboot” into a comprehensive approach to enhance and strengthen local retail. IRI recognizes that community leaders and small business owners must work together to generate a healthy retail environment for existing and new entrepreneurs. IRI accomplishes this through a three-part, nested program—consisting of IRI Champions, IRI Coaching, and IRI Snapshot—to strengthen independent retail in Iowa’s communities.

The first step in the program is the IRI Champions workshop, which is designed for multiple communities to participate. Therefore, communities agree to host a Champions workshop for up to 30 participants from several communities. Host communities participate for a fee of $2,500 and are expected to provide a location and a light lunch for the workshop and to assist in recruiting additional communities to take part.

The workshop provides training and resources to community decision makers and retail supporters, such as chambers of commerce and economic development organizations. During the day-long workshop participants will learn how they can assess existing and future retail needs, evaluate their retail district amenities, identify funding opportunities, maximize the use of social media, and explore retail niches.

Once a community has completed the IRI Champions workshop, it may choose to participate in the IRI Coaching and/or IRI Snapshot components of the program.

IRI Coaching is one-on-one consulting with retailers, preparing them for success with technical assistance and training. IRI Coaching helps retailers tackle any obstacles that prevent business growth.

The IRI Snapshots component trains local leaders to collect and analyze place-based information about their retail districts. Participants will use accessible tools to map their retail districts, conduct an inventory of existing retail conditions, and use the data collected to make meaningful decisions.

Communities interested in participating in the IRI program should contact Lisa Bates at 515-357-8185 or