Little Elma garners big attention

ISU report names city as one of 12 'small but smart' towns in Iowa

Headed north just across the Chickasaw County line, a stone’s throw into Howard County, you’ll come into the town of Elma. 

At first glance, you might think you’ve stumbled into nowhere.

But take a closer look. Sometimes, even nowhere can be somewhere.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere, but we’re also in the middle of everywhere,” said Elma City Clerk Shannon Gebel. 

Gebel is right, both philosophically and geographically. Elma sits in the middle of four county seats. The town is within a half an hour of New Hampton, Cresco, Osage and Charles City. The biggest employers in town are Colonial Manor — the community’s nursing and assisted living home — and Elma Locker and Grocery, but Elma is essentially a bedroom community, with most citizens working in one of the four aforementioned larger cities. 

Elma resident Laura Zenner works in New Hampton, as does her husband, but she said she wouldn’t be surprised to hear of a married couple living in Elma, with one spouse working in New Hampton and the other working in Osage — opposite directions.

Despite the geographical and industrial difficulties, Elma residents have managed to retain what is considered a high quality of life. One sociologist calls it a “shrink-smart” city. Essentially, that means he considers Elma “Small, but smart.”

A recent report from Iowa State University sociologist David Peters looked at Iowa towns that have improved quality of life while populations have dwindled. The report drew on census and survey data to identify 12 communities in Iowa considered “shrink-smart” communities — towns where citizens reported improved quality of life at the same time their populations decreased.

“People tend to think of rural America as declining. They equate decreases in population with overall decline in quality of life,” said Peters. “We wanted to ask if that’s really true, and we found that it doesn’t have to be.”

The report looked at small towns in Iowa with populations between 500 and 10,000 with populations that declined between 1994 and 2014. Elma was one of the dozen “small but smart” places, which also included Allerton, Bancroft, Correctionville, Elk Horn, Everly, Grand Mound, Hamburg, Mediapolis, Pacific Junction, Radcliffe and Sac City. Elma was the only city in northeast Iowa to receive the distinction.


For a complete article and more photos, see Tuesday's Tribune.

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