SMALL TOWN SOLUTIONS — Staying Vital in Rural Iowa
Denver, Iowa: Aiming for new heights
Editor’s note: IowaWatch spent four months in summer 2021 visiting 58 small Iowa towns that have fewer than 5,000 residents to understand towns that are bucking trends of declining populations, decaying downtowns or struggling schools.
DENVER — The Bremer County community of Denver, which has dubbed itself “The Mile Wide City,” in contrast to its altitudinally enhanced Colorado counterpart, had quite a mountain to climb out of the pandemic, business, school and community leaders said.
But it climbed out.
“Denver was fortunate,” said Gene Leonhart, a former longtime mayor, who still serves on the city Planning and Zoning Commission.
Leonhart and others who were interviewed for the IowaWatch project, “Small Town Solutions,” said the city had a lot going for it headed into the pandemic. IowaWatch spent four months checking into towns that buck the declining trend of other rural areas and show signs of a growing population, a strong sense of community, activities and schools.
Voters in the Denver Community School District, on the cusp of that pandemic, approved a bond referendum for a new high school and middle school building — just a few years after building a new community recreation, arts and events center, called the Cyclone Center, so named after the school teams’ mascot. District officials and their contractors have adjusted accordingly in the building’s construction, moving away from a central air handling system during construction to safeguard against the spread of another pandemic, to keep kids in school and healthy.
While COVID-19 also posed challenges for care facilities in town, nearby residential additions continued to fill in with homes.
Restaurants, which pivoted to carryout business, have adjusted again, opening back up for dine-in business, but cautioning folks about waiting times as they gear back up for that while maintaining carryout service.
COVID-19 posed a double whammy of sorts for Matt and Allyson McLaughlin, who opened AlleyCatz Grubhouse about three years ago, and adjacent AllyCatz Firehouse Pizzas & Wings just before the pandemic. The pandemic shut down dine-in business just as they were hitting their stride, so they converted to carry-out business.
“The great part of that was it’s a pizza business, so the majority of our business is out the door. So that was good in itself,” Matt McLaughlin said.
Now, it’s a challenge to keep pace with the recovering dine-in business they’re receiving, they said.
“The community has been our number one supporters,” Allyson said. “They just really made sure to make us feel loved. We just adapted. We adapted quickly.”
But, adding a new business last year crimped their ability to get business assistance loans because their two businesses were organized under one limited liability company. The process didn’t consider startup costs for the second establishment. With a little less than 40 employees, they feared what could happen, they said.
Keeping up with staffing demands is a challenge. The McLaughlins said they have normal worker turnover but not as many job applicants to replenish the staff.
“We went for probably just over a year without receiving an application,” Matt said. “That’s our struggle, We never had issues with the first two, two and a half years, hiring people.” Now, he said, “we’re probably looking at two years to get back to where we were,” Matt said. Even the couple’s triplet wrestling teenage sons are working.
The restaurant is donating a portion of proceeds from a special menu item to a new wrestling room at the middle and high school building now under construction. They’ve also provided pizza by the slice for the local athletic booster club, sharing a limited markup with the booster club.
“We really want the community to know we’re here for them, like they’re here for us,” Allyson said. “Even though we weren’t raised here, this is our home. We feel it.”
Both being natives of Cedar Falls, they bring in additional customers from outside Denver by word of mouth. AllyCatz Grubhouse also made the Top 10 list of the Best Burgers in Iowa of the Iowa Beef Industry Council and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.
While small business owners like the McLaughlins had to adjust for the pandemic, so, too, did those in charge of major capital projects, like the construction of the new Denver public high school and middle school building.
In early March 2020, just two weeks before a state-ordered coronavirus shutdown, voters in the Denver Community Schools District approved a $7.75 million bond referendum for a new middle/high school addition to the Cyclone Center arts and athletics facility. The Cyclone Center was built after a similar vote in 2016.
The middle/high school addition measure passed with more than 85% of the vote; 60% was required for passage. The addition is anticipated to be open next school year.
“I’m glad we had our vote when we did,” Denver school board President Scott Krebsbach said. ” A month or two later, folks would have probably either not even turned out to vote or been really nervous about proceeding.”
The pandemic offered a chance to take a second look at the building plans “and think through, if we had to do this again in two years or three years, what can we put in this building that will make it substantially different and better for us to be able to respond to this?” Krebsbach said.
The air handling system will be segmented into handling different parts of the building instead of the system handling it all. Another example: walk-in bathrooms with no doors.
Increased costs of building materials forced the district to work with the general contractor and architect to trim some costs, and raise funds in the community to make up the difference. Bids came in $500,000 over what was expected.
The district had $350,000 in savings and a community group was raising about $275,000 to help out, Krebsbach said.
Krebsbach said Denver benefits from being near a diverse base of major employers in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls-Waverly area, such as John Deere, UnityPoint Health, MercyOne, the University of Northern Iowa, Rada Manufacturing and CUNA Mutual Group, and Denver-based Schumacher Elevator Co.
“A lot of folks I spoke to during the course of the pandemic really did not see their workflow slow down,” in construction, healthcare, agriculture, and food services, Krebsbach said.
Jeff Schumacher, CEO of Schumacher Elevator in Denver, said his business went through a small blip in the past year but that his business is growing again. His company employs 250 people, with nearly half of those workers in town.
“We were having difficulty hiring, as a matter of fact,” Schumacher said. “The people we lose are typically to retirement.”
He and Krebsbach said many people are working remotely and dining and shopping closer to home as a result of the pandemic.
If you look at Main Street in Denver, I don’t think it’s ever been better as far as the number of businesses,” Leonhart, the former mayor, said. “The storefronts of Denver are full.”
While downtowns might be dying in other communities, Denver is adding medical and dental offices. Yhere are new housing starts, in spite of the rising costs of building materials. Some people in town will continue to work from home beyond the pandemic.
The community also has an opportunity with Butler-Bremer Communications of Plainfield for fiber optic high-speed internet access.
Dave Larson, a former city council and school board member, grew up in Denver. He became a property developer and revitalized a former hardware store building with multiple businesses a few years ago. He also owns and operates Willow Wind, an assisted living facility on the south end of town, which opened about five years ago. It is managed by Western Home Communities of Cedar Falls.
“We’ve got wonderful facilities here,” Larson said, referring to the Cyclone Center and schools. “You go anywhere and compare ours to theirs and it’s pretty impressive for a small town.”
As far as the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, “you just put your head down and you work through it,” Larson said.