Music Man redux: 'got to give Iowa a try'

Bob Rausch will blush as red as the town fire engine if you mention it, but he is this town's economy.

He owns the car wash, the gas station-convenience store, and the used-car lot. His wife, Laure, runs the beauty salon tucked behind.

And that pretty much sums up the economic profile of this town of 367 - except for the weekly hay auction.

"I'm happy here," says Mr. Rausch, of the tiny Midwest crossroad. His only anxiety: Will his two young kids feel likewise when they grow up?

As elsewhere across the Midwest - where high-tech and service industries have led a 25-year exodus away from traditional farming and manufacturing - rural Iowa has been slowly disappearing.

But now, instead of yielding wimpishly to the greater national trend, marketing-savvy officials are taking unusual steps to keep the young here. They're also trying to lasso expatriates like errant steer.

Their new mantra: C'mon home. Times have changed in Iowa - for the better.

"It is imperative that we keep our young people here," says Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is spearheading statewide efforts to trumpet news that new industry is moving in and the economy is growing stronger all the time. Leading the charge to tell youth "we need you to fill the increasing number of jobs," Mr. Vilsack is trying to attract and keep residents by pushing public partnerships with some of the state's biggest employers.

With the state's Human Resource Recruitment Consortium, Vilsack and state officials have hosted posh receptions for ex-Iowans in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.

They have mailed more than 200,000 letters to out-of-state alumni, asking them to return. And they have built a Web site, listing employment opportunities and reminding people of the state's high quality of living.

In the middle of it all is Vilsack, with laser pointer and pithy prose, highlighting how the state "ain't what it used to be."

Advanced manufacturing, financial services, information technology, and life sciences are the hot jobs in Iowa now, he says. If Iowa's base of farmers are going to be a part of the new economy, they've got to branch out.

"Right now, our corn is being sold back to us as corn flakes," he says. "We could be doing some of that processing ourselves."

That is music to the ears of Bob Rausch, who says he wants his kids to "have good jobs, so they might not have to leave."

Iowa has been particularly hard hit - its population is smaller today than in 1980. That is due in large part to the farm crisis of the 1980s, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee the state.

Mr. Rausch's three brothers did exactly that, moving away years ago in search of better, higher-paying jobs in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Phoenix.

They'll be back

"They all wanted to go where the bucks were," Rausch says. "But they'll be back. They all come back eventually."

Instead of waiting for expatriates to reach that conclusion themselves, state officials are seeking them out and asking them to come back - now. Vilsack recently spent a week walking across the state, shaking hands with townsfolk, listening to their concerns, and explaining his efforts to lure people back.

On that trip, he visited Fort Atkinson, or "the Fort," as it is commonly known around here. Sipping sweet lemonade and munching on homemade cookies the size of saucers, residents gathered under the shade at a local park to meet him.

Iowa is beginning to develop its corridors of industry. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City is one such corridor for advanced manufacturing and life sciences. Ames and Des Moines, the state capital, are developing their financial services, information technology, and value-added agriculture industries.

While labor shortages are not unique to Iowa, this state does have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.2 percent. A recent survey found that 60 percent of college grads move out of state, leaving behind a growing elderly population. Iowa ranks second in the nation in its population over 85.

"We are faced with a growing shortage of skilled workers and a growing population of aging residents," Vilsack explains. Half the population are retired farmers.

State officials are finding that people who were raised in Iowa are much more likely to move back because they've already had the "Iowa experience."

Bernie Lettington and his wife are two such people.

They both grew up in Iowa and met while attending Iowa State University. But jobs in aerospace engineering were limited in his home state, so Mr. Lettington took a job with Boeing after graduating in 1988 and the young couple moved to California.

"Moving out of the state was not the big goal," he explains. "It wasn't like we were anxious to leave."

But last fall, after almost 12 years of pollution and congestion, Lettington and his wife began to feel real pangs for home. About that same time, the Iowa consortium sent them a postcard, inviting them to a reception dinner in Los Angeles.

"The postcard explained how the job environment was real good in Iowa and how the economy had changed," Lettington says.

That was just what the couple wanted to hear. They went to the reception where Governor Vilsack came up to them and personally invited them back. "We need you," is what he said. "Well, we were really impressed with the efforts the state was putting forward to try to attract people back."

Lettington is recounting this story from his new job as systems engineer at Rockwell Collins, a Cedar Rapids-based company that manufactures avionics equipment.

His wife quickly found a job in a biotechnology lab nearby and the two are getting ready to move into their new home: "A real honest house with a real honest yard," he explains, "the kind you can just putt around in over the weekend."

Because it requires the largest technical workforce in the state, Rockwell Collins has been at all the reception dinners. While hiring only three ex-Iowans so far - a fourth is interested - it is happy with that record, says Rockwell's Tom Hobson.

For his part, Lettington is happy too, though he laments that the beach is no longer close. Still, he says, the slow life in Cedar Rapids is more his speed.

Back in Fort Atkinson, life is even slower. The biggest event each week is "Town Band Night," a tradition that has been going strong for over 100 years. Walking down the main street, people with their names sewn to their shirts wave and use expressions like "Holy buckets."

Bigger and better

"A lot have left, searching for bigger and better," says Fort resident Cindy Lensing. "It always look greener on the other side of the fence. But once they get there, they realize there's no place like home."

Mrs. Lensing wouldn't know much about greener pastures. She grew up two doors down from where she lives now with her husband and six children.

Her daughter Natalie, with fingers hooked around her denim overalls says, "I don't plan on moving. I plan on staying here forever."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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