Marketing Hometown America Study Circles Spark Community Conversations, Action Plans for New Resident Attraction

Mapleton residents participate in Study CirclesSix communities are starting the Marketing Hometown America program this winter to discuss what makes their community special, why those unique assets might be attractive to new residents, and how to let potential residents know their towns are vibrant places to live.

Marketing Hometown America is a research-based extension program offered in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. The purpose of the program is to help communities address rural depopulation and the resulting loss of economic vitality caused by years of demographic change.

The communities of Hawarden, Paullina, Sheldon, Hartley, Sanborn, Sutherland and Boone have had community leaders trained in facilitation skills to lead a four-week Study Circles program. Each week, teams of 8–10 residents representing groups such as young families, the school district, local government, businesses, long-term residents, and nonprofits work through another section of the Study Circles.

The first week of Study Circles examines the many ways people end up living where they do. Whether it was a job, proximity to family, the affordability of housing, or a slower pace of life, people had reasons they consciously chose to stay. The session also focuses on what community values are important to quality of life and what social connections help develop a sense of community. The next session uses community economic and demographic statistical data to measure how the community rates on nine indicators of quality of life. Session three builds on the nine quality-of-life indicators by identifying specific ways to market the community’s unique assets. The last session identifies which new residents may be attracted to the relocate to the community and explores how to target that market, crafting a message to reach that market and identifying the places to communicate that message.

Mapleton residents participate in Study CirclesAfter everyone has completed their Study Circles process, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field specialists bring all the groups together and lead the participants through an action planning process to jointly create a marketing plan for the community. The action planning process also discusses how to use the marketing plan to generate broader community support for implementation projects. 

Some of the kinds of projects that might come from the Marketing Hometown America program include updated community websites with information new residents are looking for about the quality of the school system, recreational opportunities, available housing, major employers, and community attractions. Other projects might include welcoming committees for new residents, outreach programs to recent college graduates or past alumni of the local school system, marketing of opportunities to purchase an existing business, or information on buildings available where new businesses can be started.

Two communities, Mapleton and Mondamin, piloted the Marketing Hometown America program in 2018 as part of a grant from the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. For Mapleton, additional new housing, expanded broadband, and a Lifelong Learning Hub were top priorities. Marie Whiteing, a retired school teacher, led the Marketing Hometown America process in Mapleton. She reports that the town is moving forward on their ideas and met with a housing developer in January. 

“We are slowly making progress and are working on the Lifelong Learning Hub in Mapleton. We are getting a new superintendent of schools and we intend to make this priority known to him. All an all, it is my opinion that we are moving, not as fast as we wish, but nevertheless in a forward motion and that feels good,” Whiteing said.

Mondamin identified an updated community website, development of a nuisance housing ordinance to make existing housing opportunities more attractive to new residents, community signage, and the creation of opportunities for more youth involvement in community affairs. Harrison County Development Corporation executive director Renea Anderson reports that a nuisance abatement workshop was held and they are coordinating with the Southwest Iowa Planning Council for assistance. They are also submitting three grants for community signage projects.

Communities who may be interested in learning more about offering the Marketing Hometown America program in their towns can visit the program webpage (https://www.extension.iastate.edu/communities/marketing-hometown-america). Interested communities can also call Abbie Gaffey, community development specialist, 712-539-1169, or by email at agaffey@iastate.edu.

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