Cedar Valley must work to stem population decline

Mike Mallaro

The Valley of Cedars is an incredible place to live, work and play. Our family has lived here for over 20 years and we love it. Unfortunately, a sluggish population in our area indicates the challenges we face and predicts a coming decline in our community unless we reverse these negative trends.

Over the 11 years from 2010 to 2021, Black Hawk County’s population has decreased by approximately 1%. The population decline in the whole “valley of the cedars” is even worse. During the same eleven-year period, the population of the United States increased by 7% and that of Iowa by 5%. Iowa’s growth is driven by the booming Des Moines metro area, as evidenced by population growth of 18% in those 11 years. Des Moines offers a vibrant array of good jobs, quality-of-life amenities, and activities. Then you have the healthy semi-urban centers of Iowa – Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Ames, Dubuque, Sioux City, metro Davenport – all of which experienced population growth during this period and, in total, increased by 7%. The rest of Iowa, let’s call it rural Iowa, saw population declines in virtually all rural communities, averaging about 3 percent.

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You’re probably not surprised that rural Iowa struggles to attract and retain people. What might come as a surprise is that the vitality of the Cedar Valley, at least as measured by where people choose to live, is much like rural Iowa and not so much like urban and semi-urban communities. -Urban Iowa. The Cedar Valley has also tended to age over the past decade, implying that we are losing the battle to retain young people. We tend to think of ourselves more as Dubuque and Ames and less as New Hampton and Ottumwa. But the cold, hard facts of demographic change don’t see it that way. Continuing this downward path will be very damaging to our community. We will lose good jobs, entertainment options and more people if we don’t make the changes necessary to make Cedars Valley a more attractive place to live.

There are several false accounts of population movements. One is that people are leaving places like Seattle, Minneapolis and San Francisco in droves and such a change will ultimately help rural America. Unfortunately, the facts do not support this account. Washington State is up 15% since 2010, while Minnesota is up 8% and even oft-derided California is up more than 5%. Another story is that people don’t move to Iowa because of the lack of good jobs. The truth is that as more and more jobs have become remote, we have fared worse, not better. Another story is that without mountains and oceans, we cannot compete. Yet places like Des Moines and Rochester thrive despite their geography.

People tend to live where they want to live. Things like job choices often take a back seat, and a lot of employees these days can work from home. Most employers have a choice as to where to find good jobs. People decide where they want to live based on many factors, and quality of life amenities are high on their list, along with schools and feeling welcome in the community. We have significantly underinvested in quality of life amenities in the Cedar Valley. The underinvestment shows up against the other communities we compete with. We are not doing as well as we should.

There is a way forward to change our attractiveness and our future trajectory. It starts with acknowledging that we have a hard time attracting and keeping people. We need to prioritize quality of life projects in local government funding to build a more vibrant and engaging community. We also need support from other funding sources for these projects, including the state government. We must prioritize collaboration, including intra-governmental collaboration as well as innovative public-private collaborations. The communities that will “win” the future are those that make themselves attractive places to live. The population numbers don’t lie and far too few people choose the Valley of the Cedars.

Mike Mallaro is CEO of VGM Group.