County residents listen and learn
Residents from communities across Buena Vista County gathered at the Alta Community Center on Tuesday night for a Storm Lake Area Development Corporation Vision Meeting, the first of several such conferences to take place in BV County towns this summer.
Citizens from Alta, Storm Lake, Newell, Albert City and Marathon took a bus tour of Alta and then participated in an interactive presentation with Frank Spillers, a Rural Development Coordinator with the USDA.
The two-hour meeting focused on a number of issues, including identifying strengths and weaknesses of the county, identifying economic opportunities within the different BV communities and developing leadership skills to help create a more positive attitude among those in all towns in the area.
Spillers has been working with economic development in rural parts of the state for 15 years, and the veteran USDA employee said the intent of the sessions was to help change the attitude and the outlook of people living in the non-urban parts of Iowa.
"The biggest thing in successful rural communities is that there's a positive attitude there among the people that leads to an absolute refusal to die," Spillers said. "People dig in their heels and do it. That all starts by having a positive attitude among those who are leaders in their communities, who will then help spread that positive attitude to others who will also become leaders. That's what we're looking to accomplish with these meetings. We want to help leaders help others become leaders and help create a refuse-to-die attitude in their towns."
"One of the things we're trying to do with these is to help show people what each town has to offer, and sometimes people aren't aware of all the positive things that are right in their town," Pat Baker, a USDA Community Development employee, said. "Sometimes people tend to focus on what's wrong rather than what's right, and we're trying to help shift that focus. Once people focus on what's right, then they're able to run from there and do some really positive things."
One of the biggest topics Spillers included in his presentation was leadership, and had each person in the audience take a leadership assessment test on both themselves and on another person that they knew. The vast majority of people rated the leadership skills of another person higher than their own, and Spillers said being able to build up confidence in one's own leadership qualities was key to helping communities grow as well.
"Many people are harder on themselves than on others because they're either afraid of risk or afraid of failure, and we have to become leaders that aren't afraid of either risk or failure," Spillers said. "We need to start building ourselves up so we can help build others up, and by doing that we can really start something positive here."
Spillers then asked the audience to list traits they would like to see in an ideal community. After finishing the list, he asked them which traits were present in communities in the county.
While the audience said some traits, such as a diverse economy and quality transportation system, were not present in the county, they said traits such as good schools, good health care, a diverse population, and community festivals, were present, and Spillers said they should try to promote those positives in addition to trying to improve other parts of the county.
"In order to invite people here and have them stay here, we have to ask why would they want to be here?" Spillers said. "We have to find out why we like the area and why our kids should like the area and not run away to bigger cities. Remember, you live in the ideal community right now - you just need to keep on making it a better place to live every day."
Spillers said one of the ways to improve the county as a whole was to be proactive rather than reactive to issues of importance such as providing adequate levels of internet service for businesses and being willing to take chances on new ideas and technologies from those in their own communities.
"You have to look ahead," Spillers said. "You can't stay here in the present; you have to look and ask what will be coming in the future. What are the trends, and are we going to be receptive to those trends and make changes on our own, or will we only make changes if we're forced to?
"Also, are we going to be receptive to ideas from those we've known in town our whole lives?" Spillers continued. "Are we going to allow them to be successful? Many times, people don't want people who they know to be successful because of the jealousy factor, and that's a huge hurdle to overcome in a small town. That requires allowing people to go ahead and do it and giving them the opportunity to belong to the community and impact it in a positive way."
Spillers said he was impressed by what he saw in Alta, and said there were many opportunities for improvement in the town.
"I think Alta's a great community," Spillers said. "There's a lot of businesses here for a town this size, and to have two golf courses, a housing development and a new school addition being built is wonderful. People just have to realize what they have here and in other towns in the county is pretty good, and that starts with leadership and a positive attitude. Those things are the keys to being successful."