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Rural development council hosts second annual summit

Speakers including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds addressed a gathering of groups from rural communities at the second annual Rural Development Summit. Contributed photo.

The Iowa Rural Development Summit took place on April 5 and 6 at Hotel Grinnell. The two-day event was attended by groups of three individuals from rural communities across Iowa, who discussed strategies for rural development and what has and has not been successful in the past. The Summit is a new strategy to better connect rural communities to foster collaboration and ideas for development.

The first Summit took place in November of 2016 in Jefferson, Iowa. This year’s Summit was only the second Summit to ever take place, but the Rural Development Council has been around since the 1990s and the Summit is an extension of the roles of the Council.

“[The Rural Development Council] had traditionally been a forum for partners to get together once a quarter to talk about the work they were doing in small towns,” said Bill Menner, Executive Director of the Iowa Rural Development Council. “It was lots of information sharing, and it was [in] 2016 that the group said, ‘we get together once a quarter, we have all these really powerful partners, we could do a lot more.’ We started talking about the need for capacity building in rural communities.” In addition to his role in the organization, the Rural Development Council is also a client of Menner’s  consulting firm.

The 2016 Summit was created to start a dialogue about development between rural communities. Over 300 people attended the Summit to discuss which development strategies did and did not work in their communities. Menner described these collaborations as the source of progress, and noted that that there is strength in numbers.

“How do you make projects happen in a small town? Part of it’s from learning through other towns and how they’re doing it,” he said.

The theme of this year’s Summit was housing in the rural setting. The two-day length of the gathering creates more opportunities for networking and connections between different communities.

“[A community] may think that [they are] operating in a vacuum, but in fact there’s probably a hundred other towns that are doing the same thing,” Menner said. “If you get them in the same room at the same time, and they start talking about this stuff, there’s this great flow of ideas.”

The only requirement for participating in the Summit is that towns must send teams of three. Any person could be on the team, but the members are typically involved in development. The rationale behind the number is that teams will go back to their towns with momentum built, making it more likely that change will take place than if only one voice was heard.

Multiple activities took place during the Summit. Various keynote speakers were in attendance, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg. Break-out sessions allowed a more narrow focus on specific aspects of rural communities. There were numerous chances for discussion among people from different communities, including the lunch served during group discussions. Additionally, there was a Rural Recognition Reception that honored local leadership. Even a YouTube star, Scott Siepker, creator of the hit series Iowa Nice, attended the event.

Ultimately, the goal of the Summit was to provide communities with resources and opportunities for development that they may not have the ability to access.

“Part of it is introducing ideas, part of it is sharing best practices and part of it, we hope, is getting [communities] to think strategically about what their community is going to look like,” Menner said. “The status quo is not an option. They have to be thinking ahead, because if they think they can leave things as they are, or go back to 1950, that’s not an answer.”

Menner intends to continue the Iowa Rural Development Summit and expand the program. For next year, Menner plans to focus the Summit on the social determinants of health, providing an opportunity to consider the factors in a community that directly impact individual health.

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