POCAHONTAS - The days of small, rural towns competing with each other is over; now is a time that demands cooperation, said Gerald Schnepf, executive director of Keep Iowa Beautiful.
Fortunately, he said Pocahontas County is very good at this.
"Success depends on partnerships. It's not just the business of I can do it alone, or I can just ask the government for help," he said.
Schnepf was the keynote speaker at a Wednesday afternoon event which served two purposes. It was the annual meeting of the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission, and it was also the awards ceremony of the Pocahontas County Foundation.
People from across the county packed into the Rialto Theater in downtown Pocahontas for the occasion.
Pocahontas County has been involved in a pilot project for about six months now, called "Hometown Pride," sponsored by Keep Iowa Beautiful. Schnepf said the group hopes to use it as a model for rural communities across the nation.
The program involves both long-term community coaching and the development of a "toolbox" of assistance tools to make available in all communities.
"It's like a 'Google' for rural communities," Schnepf said after the meeting. "Communities can pick out what they need."
The coaching would be used to help towns move out of the planning stages.
"The plan is normally approved by the city council, turned over to the city clerk, and probably in most cases duly put on the shelf," he said. "Implementation is the real weak link. Planning - you can hire that done, you can get it done privately. There's a lot of ways you can get plans done, but there's no one out there really coaching you in the implementing."
Tom Grau, director of the county's Economic Development Commission, introduced Schnepf and expressed his hope for the county's growth.
"As the nation continues to face tough economic times, we've been lucky that in Pocahontas County our economic times have been better," Grau said.
After offering his audience some observations and some national trends, Schnepf explained some of the challenges facing the county and ways it could succeed.
"People across the U.S. are returning to small towns," he said. "They are returning if you are doing the right things in your community."
Adequate housing and infrastructure are crucial, he said. Towns must find ways to be technologically sophisticated. It's also essential to get the youth involved.
And again, cooperation is key.
"Every community does its own marketing about housing, about economic development. I would suggest you market the whole county in total," Schnepf said.
"Say, 'We have nine choices for housing, nine choices of places to live at, not just one.' How many golf courses do you have, how many hospitals, how many schools."
All these changes may be tough, but Schnepf told them to stick with the Hometown Pride program.
"We've said we'll stick with it for five years. I hope after three years you'll tell us to get the heck out of here, we don't need you anymore, we're doing fine."
Grau said the same thing.
"We may be on the right track, but if we don't move forward and adjust to change, we won't move to where we want to go," Grau said.
After all, even if you're on the right track, if you hold still you'll get hit by a train, he said.
During the second half of the meeting, checks from the County Foundation grant program were presented to representatives of the towns by Foundation Vice Chair Bill Winkleblack.
Twenty grants were funded for 2013, totaling $83,403. The money goes to community improvements such as the purchase of training mannequins for the Fonda Fire Department, honor guard bugles so the Gilmore City American Legion can always play taps at funerals, and creating an outdoor basketball court in Rolfe.