Iowa’s rural areas look to stronger economies as businesses shift during pandemic

Winterset is a good example of an Iowa town whose square is surrounded by small businesses. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the strength of remote working and online marketing in new efforts that may help rural development, speakers at the online Iowa Rural Summit said Friday.

“If there’s any silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that there is an opportunity for rural communities,” said Zack Mannheimer, principal community placemaker for Alchemy Community Transformations, a division of Clive-based McClure Engineering.

Mannheimer said his firm estimated that 10% to 20% of the American workforce will leave urban areas, and perhaps 5% of workers already have in the aftermath of the early months of the pandemic. Many of those who left the cities are teleworking, Mannheimer added.

Zack Mannheimer is principal community placemaker for Alchemy Community Transformations based in Clive. (Photo courtesy of Alchemy)

“There is an opportunity for significant growth for rural communities right now,” Mannheimer said. “Teleworking has been virtually adopted overnight.

“We think that rural communities can use this opportunity to grow,” said Mannheimer, co-founder of the Des Moines Social Club. “But that means that you have to have the right broadband services, housing opportunities, quality of life amenities, cultural attractions, recreational opportunities workforce development opportunities, medical services, transportation, all the things that we all grapple with every single day.”

Several Iowa business leaders relayed stories of their businesses adapting to survive, and even expand, during the pandemic. Some hired more workers or avoided layoffs by producing hand sanitizers or face shields to help protect people against the coronavirus. 

Co-founder Bonnie Ramsey of Ramsey’s Market in Lenox and Manning added a bar and a spot to sell half-price goods from Target and Amazon to her hardware and grocery store in Lenox, population 1,400.

Sara Winkleman runs S & B Farms Distillery in Bancroft. (Screenshot from Iowa Rural Summit)

Hog and cattle farmer Sara Winkleman made plans to expand her whiskey operation, S& B Farms Distillery, in Bancroft (pop. 700) even after shifting gears to produce hand sanitizer off and on.

Brandon Rodriguez, vice president of business development for Brownmed in Spirit Lake, said when the pandemic hit, “we lost 80% of our sales overnight.” But there was an “overwhelming demand for face shields.”

Panel moderator Kylie Miller, CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corp. in Spencer said many Iowa businesses have survived by adapting. “When COVID-19 hit, they pivoted and innovated to find new ways to create revenue and to help their communities,” Miller said.

Ramsey said she runs a grocery and an Ace Hardware store in adjacent buildings in Lenox. The company is expanding with a store in Manning. 

“We opened in May, during the pandemic,” Ramsey said.

Bonnie Ramsey is co-founder of Ramsey’s Market in Lenox and Manning, (Screenshot from Iowa Rural Summit)

“I believe we are the only Ace Hardware that has a bar and a taco shop in the hardware store. Then in the back, we have Target and Amazon inventory that we sell for 50% off,” Ramsey added. The Manning store also sells Target and Amazon merchandise. 

The 55-year-old Brownmed company produces medical equipment, including widely used finger splints. Half of the production of the companies 2,000 products is in Spirit Lake, where all of the warehousing is. The firm has offices and operations in Kansas City and Boston.

“In mid-March, due to COVID, sales nearly depleted overnight,” Rodriguez said. “Seeing our country’s dire need for (personal protective equipment, or PPP) for our healthcare heroes and to retain our manufacturing jobs in Spirit Lake, we decided to answer the call and start production of face shields.

“In days, we were refining our shield design, procuring raw materials and switching over production lines, handcrafting production jigs and doubling our workforce,” Rodriguez said. Production included the Spirit Lake facility, a satellite center in Spencer, and a facility in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“For two months, our core production facility worked seven days a week, 12 -hour days between all facilities we produced and sold several million face shields. We not only saved jobs in Iowa, but lives across the country,” Rodriguez added.

Brandon Rodriguez is vice president of business development for Brownmed in Spirit Lake, (Screenshot from Iowa Rural Summit)

Winkleman said her whiskey distillery quickly shifted to make hand sanitizer. 

“Typically, we make whiskey here,” Winkleman said. But the spread of COVID-19 persuaded the company to switch to producing hand sanitizer for a time.

“Our hand sanitizer traveled throughout Iowa and into Minnesota,” Winkleman said. “When the prisons were able to help produce the much-needed sanitizer, that was our opportunity to then jump back out, because COVID was kind of beneficial to our business.”

Why? Because people were staying home, working there, and drinking more alcohol, Winkleman said. “So our alcohol sales then increased. We had to go back to producing our whiskey.”

Currently, the company is again taking a break from whiskey distilling to make sure local schools have the supplies they need to start classes.

The two-day summit was organized by the Iowa Rural Development Council