City administrator Dawn Rohe (left) and Main Street Manning director Colleen Nelson (standing) and board president Ron Reischl (third from right) wrap up an organizational meeting in August to promote small business development in the area.
City administrator Dawn Rohe (left) and Main Street Manning director Colleen Nelson (standing) and board president Ron Reischl (third from right) wrap up an organizational meeting in August to promote small business development in the area.
December 20, 2013


From 2007 to 2012, retail sales dipped throughout the state of Iowa as local economies fought their way through a recession - except in Manning.

In the small community of 1,500, retail sales not only went up, but the number of downtown storefronts actually increased, said Ron Prescott, retail specialist at Iowa State University.

Last weekend, Prescott and his colleague Susan Erickson, program coordinator in ISU's College of Design, traveled the 90 miles from Ames to Manning to hold a focus group with local business leaders and figure out exactly what Manning is doing right.

"We're curious of the secret here," Prescott said. "We're interested in what is making small towns sustainable and attractive places."

Local business leaders joked they wouldn't give away all their secrets, but identified a handful of characteristics they felt make Manning's community stand out, including dedicated, educated individuals, and an ability to adapt.

Businesses diversify themselves, said Bob Stessman, owner of Manning Pharmacy. If a customer can't find an item, the store owner will get it, and no store limits itself to any one thing.

Through this diversification, each business offers a combination of needs and wants, added Dawn Rohe, city administrator. This allows businesses to survive through recessions because none rely solely on discretionary spending. Even the liquor store offers other goods and services, from wall hangings to tanning, she said.

Rexanne Struve, owner of Veterinary Associates of Manning, credited Manning's vibrant community to a progressive "can-do" attitude. The results include a recreation center, hospital, trail system, high-speed Internet connections and public pool - attractions that some communities even larger than Manning can't support, Prescott said.

"Nothing happened because the whole town wanted it to," Rohe explained with a laugh. "A few people wanted it, and the whole town liked it when it was done. Whether the trails or the hospital, the community won't all agree, but it will happen. There is not a lot of red tape stopping individuals."

These individuals are also supported by access to capital and a strong foundation of nonprofits, said Kevin Boyle, vice president of Templeton Savings Bank and president of the Manning Betterment Foundation.

"Our forefathers allowed the groundwork for good leadership. We have nonprofits that can attract monies and give the impression that good things are going on," Boyle explained. "We've been able to try things. We take pride in taking care of our own."

This determination and forward-thinking has also led to the return of a generation of young professionals, said Rohe and Struve, who estimated that nearly half of IKM-Manning's graduates have returned over the past 10 years.

"We have business owners, bankers, doctors, lawyers - educated people," Mayor Harvey Dales said. "We have more thinkers here than other small towns."

Prescott agreed that Manning's ability to maintain its population has differentiated it from its peer cities as much as its ability to maintain retail sales throughout the recent recession.

Manning's economy drew Prescott's notice after the Main Street business owners worked with Iowa State University graphic design students through the college's Partnering Landscape and Community Enhancement program. The graphics students helped the businesses create new storefront signs.

"We focus on meeting community development needs with student classroom projects," Erickson said."I'm always on the lookout for ways our students could work on real world problems and also fill the needs of a classroom assignment."

Since the inception of the program in 2003, more than 200 design students have worked with small businesses in 11 different communities.

The students begin by studying branding giants such as Pepsi and Nike, then work to apply the same concepts to the small businesses they partner with, Erickson said.

"We always try to walk a fine line and not take away from designs by any private individuals," she said.

Main Street Manning got involved with the Iowa State program after Rohe saw the information in a newsletter, believing it would be a good fit for small business owners receiving 17 historic storefront facade restorations through a community development block grant.

Though the grant would not cover the cost of new signs, many Main Street business owners were still interested, Nelson explained. The new designs incorporate wood, metal, vinyl and other materials.

Erickson said each community the students have worked with usually has a few businesses that implement the design plans. One of the keys for this follow-through is the presence of strong local coordinators, she said.

Nelson believes several of the Manning businesses will purchase the new signs.

Prescott originally completed a retail analysis for Manning to help the graphic design students better understand the businesses with which they were working. He is searching for a community to work with a merchandising class in the fall of 2014, and said that Manning is a possibility.

"Most towns with this size population don't have enough retailers for a class to work with," said Prescott. "That's a tribute to you."