Iowa’s Poorest County Suffers Another Setback, But Optimism Remains for Better Days

LAMONI, Iowa  --  There aren't enough young people. There aren't enough well-paying jobs. There aren't as many workers needed on the family farm anymore. This is the situation in Decatur County, but it's also what life is life in most of Iowa's other counties, too. A recent state report found 79 of the state's 99 counties are declining in population. 

Decatur County has the unfortunate distinction of being Iowa's poorest county when you consider a variety of factors like income, poverty, and opportunities. The county that sits on the southern Iowa/northern Missouri border has just 8,200 people. That is less than half the people who lived there about 150 years ago.

Sunday, residents were hearing the news that one of the county's largest employers, Graceland University, planned to lay off 19 workers. 

Elizabeth Baldwin didn't really struggle to find a job. In fact, for a while, the divorced mother of a seven-year-old son named Jonah actually had three jobs. The problem was none were full-time and enough to support her family.

"You start feeling very desperate, depressed," Baldwin said, "You feel like you're going nowhere. How is that not working? What am I doing wrong?"

One of the most surprising statistics about her community is the unemployment rate. Decatur County's rate for December was just 2.2%, according to the Iowa Workforce Development. That is lower than many other counties and half a point lower than the state average.

Compare unemployment rates across Iowa here. 

But people in Decatur County will tell you the number can be deceiving. There are too many people like Baldwin, who were underemployed, or others who had simply given up finding a decent job.

Shannon Erb is one of the people who doesn't totally trust the numbers. She also knows other numbers work against the county right now: the number of older residents, people in poverty, lack of suitable and affordable housing, and number of people who have to commute more than an hour to other places to find work.

It makes her job more difficult. Erb is the county's executive director of the Decatur County Development Corporation.

(Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Erb was the first, full-time executive director. The position has existed since 2004, but the focus has changed since she took over in its economic development efforts.)

The two largest cities in the county--Lamoni and Leon--used to rely on economic development efforts largely from all-volunteer community leaders. But with a declining population and dwindling tax base, residents decided to try something different.

"We’ve really tried to shift that to what’s good for Decatur County is good for Decatur County," Erb said, "Play to each city's  strengths."

Erb doesn't have many financial incentives to offer perspective companies, although the area has plenty of available land she can help them secure. She is working with the state for an abatement program that offsets some property taxes for those neighbors who are trying to fix up their homes.

She also says she is working on some promising leads on potential employers, but can't disclose those publicly. One thing she isn't trying to do is to force Decatur County to be something it isn't. In other words, it is not trying to land mega-companies like Apple or Google in town. She knows the area doesn't have the trained workforce for that now.

Erb is more realistic with her hopes. "What I’d like to see in Decatur County is a warehouse that employs about 20 people," she said, "where people go in and package packages and ship them out. We have the employees to fulfill those easily. We have buildings and we have logistics to set up that operation."

Interstate 35 goes through the heart of the county, making it an attractive way for goods to get quickly north to Des Moines or south to Kansas City, Erb believes.

One business is already capitalizing on that, and in many ways Freedom Racing Tool and Auto is exactly what the area needs. Tad Whittom started the business out of his home several years ago when he was a manager with a call center in town before it closed. Whittom bought the remaining auto parts from a business that shut down out-of-state. He quickly realized he could sell those parts over the internet for a profit.

His business soon outgrew his family's home and then got too big for a downtown office when he shifted his efforts full-time to the company. Now, he says he needs more than the 9,000 square feet his warehouse offers, even though it's six times what he had when his supplies crowded his house. "In hindsight, I wish we would have built the building larger," Whittom said, "but we honestly didn’t realize that we would grow quite this fast."

Whittom hired some of his former co-workers to join him at his company that now employs 19. He would hired another few people if he could find the workers.

More than 100 packages a day ship out of the business. And the best part for the county is that they primarily come from outside Decatur County's borders. That means Whittom is bringing in much-needed new money to the area, boosting his bottom line and lifting paychecks for his workers. "We have the resources here to support entrepreneurs if they want to make something happen but they have to be creative," Whittom said, "They have to find a way to bring in revenue outside of Decatur County."

More revenue means more opportunities. More opportunities means less stress for families. For Chris Coffelt, it can't come soon enough. Coffelt really has two jobs himself: he is superintendent at Lamoni Community School District and at Central Decatur Community School District in Leon 20 miles away, where he went to school.

"That stress, anxiety, depression creates variety of experiences for kids that can negatively impact them that they bring to school in a daily basis," he said.

Coffelt tries to make the school experience as stable and consistent as he can. A national publication recognized his efforts to retain and train teachers.

Read the story here. 

Elizabeth Baldwin hopes progress is coming, both in the school system and the job market. For her, it already has. She is now working full-time at the Hy-Vee Pharmacy in Lamoni. No more three part-time jobs and 70 hours per week. Now she makes more money and can spend more time with her son. She tries to put an optimistic outlook at her family's past struggles.

"I think overall it's good for him," Baldwin said, "because he's going to understand things aren't everything."