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Sustainability Summit – Lee County

Iowa State University Extension's Sustainability Summit for Lee County in Keokuk.

Lee County has been called the “Poster Child” for unemployment in Iowa.

Help could be on the way with the possible development of a fertilizer plant, but that would be just the start of what is needed to reverse years of job losses.

A recently-released study highlights the county’s strengths and weaknesses, but taking advantage of that information requires community support and interest.

Phil Chancellor of Keokuk has more free time on his hands now that he has retired after a career in the field of high-tech telecommunications.

When he recently had seven hours to spare, he did not spend it with family and friends or working around his house.

He sat down in a comfortable chair inside a meeting room at the Millennium Center in Keokuk and took notes during several speeches, presentations, and power-point displays.

“I am concerned about the sustainability of the city itself,” says Chancellor, “because in my opinion, it has been declining.  I want to know some of the ideas that would help bring some of it back.”

Chancellor was one of about 75 people who attended a summit held by Iowa State University Extension.

In fact, he was one of the few who showed up as a private citizen.  Most of the others represented government, business and civic organizations from throughout Lee County.

Chancellor hopes the summit spurs more people than just those in the room to take action.

“I’m hoping that there are some people who get together to decide how we want to move forward,” says Chancellor, “and maybe hire consultants to see if they can find funding and grants to do it.”

While Chancellor is talking specifically about Keokuk, the summit focused on the entire county.

Abby Gaffey is a Program Specialist with ISU Extension.  She says the goal of the gathering was to get people thinking about what the county will be like in 20 years.

“When you bring it down to the level of your own community, your own neighborhood, your own business, your own job, the non-profits, your church, your school,” says Gaffey, “when you bring it down to a level that is understandable, even the most complicated data can be made sense of.”

Gaffey says ISU Extension is using a federal grant to study 40 specific population centers across Iowa.  These are areas, be it a city, a county, or a region, with populations of 5,000-50,000.

ISU Extension is looking at more than 100 financial, social, and environmental indicators for those population centers.  Those indicators include population growth, personal income, health care access, student performance, and air emissions.

Gaffey says after reviewing the results, the agency decided a few locations needed more direct assistance, including Lee County.

“We chose you guys because we thought you needed us,” says Gaffey, “we took a look at your numbers and thought we could make progress here.”

One objective of the summit was to reveal Lee County’s rankings amongst its peers.

Some perceived strengths include average wages and salaries, recreational opportunities, hospital access and conservation.

The weaknesses include population trends, personal income, teen birth rates, poverty, workforce constraints and contaminated sites.

Associate Scientist David Swenson helped prepare the report on Lee County.  He says it’s important for a community to understand its strengths and weaknesses and how they compare to neighboring or similar communities.

Swenson says capitalizing on that knowledge requires community buy-in, but that is becoming more difficult as fewer and fewer young adults choose to remain…

“You have a brain drain, regionally, and a brain drain in almost all of rural Iowa,” says Swenson, “so that is just flat out the pattern or the trend.”

Justin Tuck left Keokuk for Cedar Rapids in 2010.

“It was a really hard decision,” says Tuck, “one of the harder decisions I have had to make in my personal life because Keokuk has always been home.  I will always call Keokuk home but it was a very difficult decision.”

Tuck is the type of person Swenson was talking about when he mentioned the “Brain Drain.”  He is 31-years-old and is married with two young children.

Unlike others, he decided to return to his hometown of Keokuk after college.  During his recent stint, he served on the City Council as well as other local organizations and helped develop a network of young professionals.

Tuck eventually had to leave for professional reasons.

“It was very limited to move up through the ranks at my (HyVee) store in Keokuk,” says Tuck, “based on the fact that the upper-management positions there were stable positions held by people who had no intentions of moving up.”

Tuck says that led him to Cedar Rapids, where he could train and advance.

He says if the opportunity presents itself in the future, though, he would return home to Keokuk.

That becomes the goal for government, community and business leaders in Keokuk, Fort Madison and throughout Lee County: Create an environment where potential leaders can and will remain.

Abby Gaffey says ISU Extension will be there to help Lee County process the information the agency provided and get a start on how to utilize it.

It will take more than one agency or a select few people.  It will require regular citizens, such as Phil Chancellor, who says he is willing to help.

Lee County has a high unemployment rate.

The problem has plagued the county for years and it will not change overnight.

As more people decide to get involved, though, and work together, the county could one day change its image and become known as the “Poster Child” for growth and prosperity.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.