FILE - Iowa soybean farm

Soybean farm in Iowa.

(The Center Square) – Rural communities with populations under 20,000 can apply for four grant programs for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, state officials announced Tuesday.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ communications director Alex Murphy told The Center Square in an emailed statement Wednesday that the $500,000 budget for the four grants was general fund dollars appropriated to the Iowa Economic Development Authority through the Empower Rural Iowa program.

Reynolds established the Empower Rural Iowa initiative and three advisory task forces with an executive order in 2018. In their December 2020 report, they recommended continuing support for Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) development and employee-owned cooperative models for rural business succession and encouraging former Iowans to come back to the state.

The Rural Innovation Grant Program will provide up to $200,000 for “creative, non-traditional ideas that focus on current issues and challenges faced by rural communities associated with the themes of community investment, growth and connection.” Twelve projects in fiscal year 2021 received $20,000, including Cedar Summerstock Theater’s sound and lighting equipment for technical youth training in St. Ansgar and Haverhill’s development of an EMT/first responder recruitment and training program, and Lenox’s transforming an alley into a pocket park with a curb bump-out.

The Rural Housing Assessment Grant Program will provide up to $100,000 to support the use of communities’ use of the Profile of Iowa tool by providing supplemental information and supporting changes to development codes, local ordinances and housing incentives with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Six communities out of eight applicants received these grants last fiscal year.

The Rural Child Care Market Study Grant Program provides up to $100,000 to cities, less populated counties, tribal governments, nonprofits, pre-K through 12 schools, and higher education institutions to support assessments and strategies regarding the child care market environment in partnership with First Children’s Finance, a business development nonprofit.

The Rural Return Program provides up to $100,000 to Iowa businesses, schools, city or county government, and nonprofit agencies “to support creative programming that attracts new residents to move and/or work in rural communities,” according to the IEDA website.

“In many cases, rural towns struggle to generate the financing to make projects happen,” Iowa Rural Development Council Executive Director Bill Menner told The Center Square in an emailed statement Thursday. “They have smaller populations, lower property tax receipts, and fewer people to make big things happen. Investments from the state provide some opportunity for these rural places to capitalize on the available funds and make things happen that might [not] otherwise.”

Iowa State University Professor of Sociology and Extension Rural Sociologist David Peters told The Center Square in a phone interview Wednesday that he has low expectations of the Rural Return Program.

“[The Rural Return Program] is not going to generate huge amounts of people coming into small towns in Iowa,” he said. “The only small towns in Iowa that are growing are those within the orbit of a metro center. So people will move out to a small town as long as they keep their job in the city.… If you’re not within 45 minutes of a large city, few people are going to move there. Iowa’s doesn’t have a lot of natural amenities [that would draw people to a small town]. We’re not the West. We don’t have mountains. We don’t have forests.”

He wasn’t fond of the market study grant program either.

“There’s just not enough kids to make it financially feasible to run daycares [in rural communities],” Peters said. “You can do a market study all you want.… Local communities know what the market is. I don’t think they need a market study to do that.”

Running a daycare out of a home is “usually hit or miss” due to capacity constraints and risk of unsteady enrollment. Peters said that since “there’s just not enough kids” to be “financially feasible” to run daycares in rural communities, the only successful child care facilities he’s seen are collaborations between local community nonprofits and government, which might donate the land and the building.

Peters said some previous recipients of Empower Rural Iowa programs “are pretty well off” and the communities that have the greatest need for grants “just really don’t have the capacity” to apply.

“So, in some ways, it’s sort of ‘advantage begets advantage,’” he said.

Empower Rural Iowa Initiative Task Force members and “expert professionals” will score the applications, which are accepted through iowagrants.gov. The deadline for fiscal year 2022 is Dec. 1. For more information about the grants, contact Empower Rural Iowa Initiative Program Manager Liesl Seabert at rural@iowaeda.com.