STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some researchers think they've found a way for rural towns to manage an almost universal problem. Many rural American towns face depopulation. They've been declining in population for decades. Some hope for big turnarounds that will draw people back, but the researchers in Iowa think there's a better way, a more practical way, borrowed from towns in Eastern Europe to improve even as they lose population. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Back when big families worked small farms, Americans built tens of thousands of towns that those families relied on to sell their crops and to buy just about everything else. Those days are long gone, and now remote, rural towns with a strong economic anchor are the lucky ones.
Business is booming here at Sukup manufacturing in Sheffield, Iowa. They make those big, round, steel bins you see dotting the grain belt. Charles Sukup says he's hiring about as fast as he can and already employs close to 700 people in this town of just over 1,100.
CHARLES SUKUP: Well, I guess our philosophy is you bloom where you're planted.
MORRIS: But Sukup's dedication to Sheffield hasn't been enough to shield it from the larger social and economic headwinds buffeting small towns.
KIMBERLY ZARECOR: The big picture for all rural communities that don't have a connection to a growing metro area is that they are going to get smaller over time.
MORRIS: Kimberly Zarecor teaches at Iowa State University and argues that little towns should stop beating themselves up for losing population and instead focus on making life better for the residents they still have.
ZARECOR: We call this the Shrink Smart Project.
MORRIS: It's an idea that dawned on Zarecor when she studied in a city in the Czech Republic, one that saw its local coal and steel industry collapse 30 years ago.
ZARECOR: Ostrava is a place that's shrinking, losing people, but it's still a place that people love to live in, are very loyal to. And it's also a place that outsiders look at and think, I don't want to be there.
MORRIS: Sounds like any number of small American towns, right? Zarecor says the difference is that Ostrava is embracing the idea that it can shrink and still improve. Zarecor and her colleague at Iowa State, Dave Peters, want to bring that paradigm shift to rural America. Peters says they're conducting surveys to figure out how it is that some remote, rural towns manage to make life better for their residents even as their populations drain away.
DAVE PETERS: So Sac City is probably one of our best examples of shrink smart in that the quality of the services, the quality of the government, the quality the community, it's phenomenal.
MORRIS: That's Sac City, Iowa - population 2,200 and falling.
MORRIS: It's 7 a.m. and members of the Sac City Community Foundation are discussing possible projects - $2,500 to build a bike path, maybe chipping in for a marketing campaign. Board member Steve Irwin says that while Sac City wants to grow, it's quality of life that comes first.
STEVE IRWIN: It's more about how the people feel about their towns. Are they happy? Do they have a sense of community? Do they have the essentials of life? Do they have health care and recreation?
MORRIS: Smaller than most cities' tiniest suburb, Sac City boasts a hospital, a nice rec center, two pools, schools, a library, robust day care, even a roadside attraction - the world's largest popcorn ball, a confection that weighs more than 4 1/2 tons - this in a town that's lost a big chunk of its economic base and a third of its population since the 1980s. Irwin says the secret sauce here is people, super-involved citizens, willing to work together for the good of the town.
IRWIN: You know, we always seem to have a champion for a project, somebody or some group or something that kind of takes the lead.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're gaining.
MORRIS: A couple of men are building a new shelter in Sac City's leafy cemetery. It's a very small part of the work funded by one of the town's former champions, John Criss, a local businessman who died and left $5.7 million to beautify Sac City. This came as a complete surprise, even to Renae Jacobsen, who Criss left in charge of the fund.
RENAE JACOBSEN: I think it was just his way of giving back to the town - probably saw that it needed some beautification, some work, and he just didn't want to see it die out like so many small towns do.
MORRIS: Global economic forces will likely keep grinding away at many remote, rural towns. But people in Sac City hope that by working collaboratively, they can little by little raise the quality of life even as population declines. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Sac City, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "DISTANCE TO GIBRALTAR")
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