One of Iowa’s leading voices on community development spies opportunities for rural Iowa as those living in larger cities look to escape population density and the health threats associated with it, while also leaving behind a raft of other challenges, from high rent and long commutes to unsatisfying public-service opportunities.

“Rural America is the next place to pioneer. How will these communities not only work through this pandemic, but how can they come out the other side in stronger position to succeed?” said Zachary Mannheimer, principal community placemaker of Alchemy. “As urban residents look for safer and more affordable places to live and work, what will it take to lure them to rural?”

In an interview this week, Mannheimer noted that 97 percent of the United States geography is rural. But only 20 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

“That’s the problem,” said Mannheimer, who has played a pivotal role in helping Jefferson chart future-minded ambitions.

A native of the Philadelphia area, Mannheimer came to Des Moines from Brooklyn, New York, more than a decade ago. He thinks more people are poised to leave urban America amid (and in the wake of) COVID-19. He suggests up to 20 percent of residents of major cities like New York, Houston, Miami and Seattle may bail out for pandemic-related reasons, and he could see 5 percent of people in places like Des Moines departing and looking for life in the suburbs or rural Iowa.

“I guarantee that if you put together a plan, you can see your population rise,” Mannheimer counseled rural communities in Iowa.

With more work-from-home careers and the presence of high-speed Internet, professionals who’ve had to cluster in cities like Austin and Boston no longer have to do so. They can work from home — or find a spot at Jefferson’s new co-working development.

“COVID is accelerating this entire process,” Mannheimer said.

Mannheimer, working with Alchemy, has developed the Ninety-Seven Podcast to look at how communities in rural America can leverage their assets to capture COVID-19 refugees.

You can stream episodes New episodes will be released every two weeks. Listen for some rural Iowa voices soon.

Mannheimer said rural communities should assess and upgrade their assets — housing, high-speed Internet, medical services, transportation, education and local amenities.

“If you do all those six pieces, that’s what equals workforce,” he said.

Not a lot of rural communities are maximizing and marketing their potential with city-fleeing folks, Mannheimer said.

Cities that start on a plan “would be at the very front of the line,” he said.

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