The Empower Rural Iowa Initiative has approved recommendations for legislation intended to help build the economy in Iowa’s smaller communities.

No overall cost estimate for the recommendations was reported.

Gov. Kim Reynolds established three task forces by executive order in July 2018. Iowa has struggled to keep its rural communities healthy as many Iowans moved to Des Moines and other urban areas or left the state altogether. The panels include the Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force, the Growing Rural Iowa Task Force and the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force.

In the first legislative session, the task forces focused on addressing rural housing shortages, leadership development in rural communities and financing better broadband services around the state. Those remain critical issues.

Leading up to the 2020 legislative session, the task forces held meetings in Mount Ayr, Bellevue, Manning, Vinton, Hawarden, Clarion and Coralville and took ideas from industry representatives, the public and members of the task forces.

The task forces’ report said the actions are aimed at “improving coordination, aligning processes and supporting local initiatives. “These recommendations will not solve every challenge facing rural Iowa,” the task forces said in a report.

“By connecting, investing and growing our rural communities, we can ensure Iowa’s success is every Iowans’ success. We know how to come together to think differently and build an Iowa that shatters expectations,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Reynolds signed House File 772 earlier this year. Known as the Empower Rural iowa Act, it provided for incentives for broadband projects and workforce housing.

The initiative’s recommendations for the 2020 session include:

  • Streamline programs that help communities address abandoned or dilapidated buildings. Various state programs now have different deadlines and application procedures.
  • Change a state building remediation loan program to meet community needs. Just half of the original $5 million allocation has used, in part because of technicalities that have inflated the loan interest rates, the task force reported.
  • Consider offering a loan guarantee through the Iowa Finance Authority to encourage local financial institutions to share the risk.
  • Increase spending on state programs that help improve downtowns and other areas. For example, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources program to help pay to remove “derelict buildings” is paid for with landfill fees, but the $400,000 available is one-half to one-third the amount requested by communities. The task force considers the $1 million cap on the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s popular Main Street Challenge Grant Program too low.
  • Expand RISE grants to support housing. The Iowa Department of Transportation’s RISE grants (Revitalizing Iowa’s Sound Economy) has typically paid part of the cost for roadways that are key to economic developments. The idea here is to also use the grants for housing projects, which also are important to development. The task force also would like to see matching requirements on a sliding scale based on population to help smaller communities.
  • Maintain the rural set-aside for Workforce Housing Tax Credits.
  • Continue funding for the developing Rural Housing Needs Assessment Grants and the Rural Innovation Grants.
  • Create matching grants to help communities develop leadership.
  • Support creative placemaking projects resulting from community visioning through rural set-aside funding.
  • Provide resources for new rural leadership programs and support existing ones.
  • Continue support for the Rural Innovation Grant program.
  • Offer larger matching grants for broadband projects that offer higher speeds in rural areas. Increase state support for broadband in general. Improve state maps showing connectivity in various areas. In addition, funding for broadband grants rose from $1.3 million in the budget year ending June 30 to $5 million for the 2019-20 budget year. But Reynolds had asked for $20 million over two fiscal years, and is calling for at least $15 million more to achieve that.

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