Land, Water, Wildlife: Workforce

By Anna Gray on March 31, 2023 in Blog

Two people walk across the High Trestle Trail bridge in Madrid

“Help Wanted.” Walking down Iowa’s main streets, you are bound to find at least a few businesses looking to fill open positions. Workforce development has become a paramount challenge facing businesses across the country. With workers having flexibility to choose where to live and work, the quality of life that Iowa can offer is an essential component for helping businesses and rural communities thrive. But how does Iowa stand out as the place that people choose to make their home and build their careers? A study from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) sought to answer this question, and the results illustrate the undeniable role that parks and trails play in fostering a high quality of life and ability to attract workforce.

In order to bolster tourism, economic and community vitality, IEDA commissioned a study to better understand how Iowa is perceived and the factors that motivate individuals to visit and relocate. Time and time again, participants described both their ideal vacation and place to live as having ample outdoor activities and scenery. Research shows that natural landscapes and recreation are two of the top factors that motivate someone to move. Iowa’s lakes, rivers, forests, trails and open spaces fill it with natural beauty and chances for adventure. Yet, the study found that Iowa is not perceived as having the desired recreational amenities. IEDA’s findings underscored the value of our natural resources and identified the untapped potential of our open spaces. As we look to grow and diversify Iowa’s population, we must prioritize quality of life initiatives and leverage the opportunity available in our parks, trails and wildlife areas. Fortunately, several programs already lay a framework for successfully promoting community vitality.

Fully Fund the Resource Enhancement & Protection Program (REAP)

For over 30 years, REAP has supported more than 15,000 natural resource and community improvement projects across the state. Local parks, hunting areas, historical and cultural landmarks and soil and water conservation practices have all been made possible by REAP, including some of Iowa’s most cherished outdoor spaces. Backbone State Park, for example, has used REAP to maintain its iconic historic structures built in the early twentieth century. Thanks to REAP, Iowa’s first state park continues to draw tens of thousands of visitors to rural Delaware County each year. Newer REAP projects like the ongoing Iowa River’s Edge Trail in Hardin and Marshall Counties will connect communities to other outdoor spaces that REAP has supported over the years, such as Pine Lake State Park in Eldora and the Iowa River Greenbelt.

REAP was created with broad legislative support and signed into law by Governor Branstad. The program has history of strong bipartisan backing and has been extended by the legislature twice. Although it is currently authorized to receive $20 million in annual funding, REAP funds are regularly diverted, and the program has never been fully funded. Fully funding REAP is a logical first step in investing in our communities and the quality of life they offer.

Increase Funding for the State Recreational Trails Program

Iowa’s State Recreational Trails Program supports the development of trails that connect communities, provide safe transportation and serve as a gateway for exploring Iowa’s towns and businesses. The High Trestle Trail spanning from Ankeny to Woodward has earned national recognition, attracting visitors from around the world. A staple in the Ankeny community, the High Trestle Trail contributes to the city’s reputation of offering a great quality of life and becoming one of the fastest growing cities in the country. But trails also bring life to Iowa’s smallest towns. In southwest Iowa, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail attracts over a thousand people each week for the Thursday night Taco Ride from Council Bluffs to Mineola. The ride brings people together for recreation, food, music and fun that generates excitement in the surrounding communities and offers riders a chance to discover places that might otherwise go unnoticed.

With the tremendous popularity and demand for trails, requests for funding average five times the amount available, hindering Iowa’s ability to leverage a favorite recreational amenity in workforce attraction. Increasing funding for the State Recreational Trails program is a proven way of supporting communities working to draw in new visitors and residents that can support their local economies.

Fund the Natural Resources & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund

The Natural Resources & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund was created in 2010 when Iowa voters amended the state constitution to create a dedicated fund for improving water quality, enhancing parks, trails, and wildlife areas and conserving agricultural soils. More than a decade later, the Trust Fund remains empty, requiring legislative action for funding and implementation. Polling shows that 70% of Iowans support the legislature taking steps to finally fund the Trust Fund to support programs like REAP, trails, water quality, soil health and quality of life initiatives.

The connection between outdoor recreation and workforce development is simple: if people play somewhere, they might consider living and working there. Encouraging people to visit Iowa and see what it can offer is an important first step in attracting new residents. Funding existing programs to provide sustainable, dependable resources to improve community vitality and quality of life is next.

These three perspectives demonstrate the role that parks and trails play in attracting and retaining Iowa citizens. A business owner shares her thoughts on how open spaces and recreation support her workforce recruitment efforts, a community leader who left Colorado shares what he has come to love as an Iowa transplant, and a small-town tourism professional shares what it was like to grow up in rural Iowa, move to one of the largest cities in the country and return to support her hometown.

The Business Driver: Lori Schaefer-Weaton, Fairfield

Founded by Dick Smith in 1978, Agri-Industrial Plastics Co. specializes in the production of fuel tank systems for non-automotive industries and parts for a variety of other products. Our ability to grow and to service our customers is all about hiring, developing and retaining the right people who want to be part of our company for the long run. In rural Iowa, workforce availability is limited, and more than ever, people are looking for more than just a job. They want to feel connected to their company and to the community. In Fairfield, we are lucky to have an Arts and Convention Center, a Parks and Recreation Facility and a beautiful trail system around our community. We also have parks that give families access to a wide variety of outdoor activities. These amenities make it easier to attract and retain employees.

The Transplant: Eric Obergfell, Johnston

Originally from Indiana, I spent time in county and state parks and enjoyed hiking, canoeing or simply picnicking at a nature center or playground. I have always enjoyed being in nature and in 2007 I was able to achieve my dream to move to Denver. My recreation time was marked by countless hikes, summiting 18 of Colorado’s 14,000+ ft peaks (knows as 14ers to the locals), regular camping trips, a few whitewater rafting trips, several concerts at Red Rocks, and winter weekends spent skiing. When family and friends contacted me, I described my life as living the dream. And I truly was. I loved my work, was enjoying everything Colorado had to offer, and was building friendships, often with other Midwesterners that had left their home states.

I thought I’d never consider leaving Colorado where my wife and I started our family. But for a variety of reasons, deep down in my gut, the Midwest began to call me home.

Since settling in Johnston, our family has enjoyed visits to many of Iowa’s state parks. No, it’s not the Rocky Mountains, but there is natural beauty right here in Iowa. We just need to help more people recognize it and continue to add to and preserve the natural treasures, destinations and attractions we have.

The Boomerang: Delaney Evers, Centerville

Growing up in a rural community, I always dreamed of a life in a big city outside of my comfort blanket of Iowa—and at age 19, I set out for Los Angeles to attend school. For five years, I thrived on the city’s energy, marveled at the natural beauty of the ocean and beaches and soaked up the California sun. Yet, I found myself longing for the close ties of a small town and room to breathe. Now, I am proud to call myself an Iowan once again and serve as the Tourism and Main Street Director for Promoting Appanoose County Together (PACT), working to promote, preserve and develop the community assets of my hometown. Our parks, trails and hunting areas are essential to helping attract visitors, providing safe routes to school and keeping rural Iowa vibrant to help meet the needs of our local citizens and businesses. Moving back home, I have come to appreciate the value of our open spaces. As we look to grow our community, and encourage others like me to move back to Iowa, there is tremendous opportunity for enhancing, connecting and growing our outdoor amenities.