The Ottumwa Courier. March 26, 2005


by Matt Milner, Courier Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD - Robert Dorgan's Institute for Small Town Studies operates a lot like the small towns it looks at.

The institute is decentralized, largely informal and spread across the country. The base may be in Fairfield, but Dorgan is at the University of Nevada Las Vegas right now teaching architecture.

UNLV is only Dorgan's latest stop. He's spent time at the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Appropriately, the institute's offices are in a couple of railroad cars that used to travel the country.

The institute has an annual small town symposium for members. It travels. Last year was in Fairfield, this year is in Boulder City, Nev.

"They were basically a federal camp in the 1930s and then incorporated in the 1960s," Dorgan said. The camp was filled to house workers for what is now the Hoover Dam. Boulder City is an interesting place for the 41-year-old Dorgan and his peers. The city purchased strips surrounding the existing housing. City property actually extends well into the Mojave Desert.

Purchasing desert may not sound like the best investment, but Dorgan said it fits with Boulder City's goal. They want to create a small town and keep it small. Owning the surrounding land gives the city veto power over sprawl and retail expansion.

"There's no big box development, or, if there is, it's under their terms," Dorgan said. Just why a city wants to emulate a pattern many believe is dying out, and why small towns really aren't, is the focus for the institute. Ensuring that small towns have their own network to rely on is another goal.

"The institute is set up as a network of resources," Dorgan said. It includes economists, sociologists, political resources, architects, writers, public relations people and just about anything else a town might need. "A number of those people put our network out there at our symposium as well."

The idea is to look at just what small towns are and what they can become. Dorgan said there are a couple factors that make that more difficult than you might think.

One is that almost no one really remembers what small towns were like 50 years ago. People in larger cities don't know. Their strongest impression is of the fictionalized "Mayberry" from "The Andy Griffith Show."

People in small towns may not remember, either. Time has a way of glossing over flaws and idealizing the past.

What you wind up with is an idealized version of small towns. It's something no town can really live up to.

Dorgan compares it to New York City. People have an impression of the city from "NYPD Blue," "CSI: NY," "Law & Order" and other television shows and movies set in the city. They influence the public's view, regardless of whether or not the image is accurate. The same thing happens in other cities.

"You probably have a view of Los Angeles or Chicago whether you've ever been there or not," Dorgan said.

Small towns don't brag about their good points, but they also don't talk about the less attractive elements.

"Teens got pregnant in the 1950s, there were alcoholics in the 1950s," Dorgan said. You'd never know it from most depictions, though.

"Iowans aren't very boastful," he said. "They're very modest. You do your job well, you don't need to talk about it."

So what is the attraction of small towns?

"A lot of it is, from what we can tell, centering around the quality of life, lower crime rate. Education. A sense of community, you know your neighbors, your neighbors know you," Dorgan said. "I don't think it's entirely nostalgia."

Conventional wisdom often holds that small towns are dying out. Dorgan said that isn't what the institute has found.

"One thing that surprised me is small towns around here are largely alive," he said. They still have a sense of place and activity. "A lot of it has to do with the physical infrastructure built 100-125 years ago."

Small towns can succeed and never build the confidence Dorgan said other areas would have. Southeast Iowa has a perfect example.

"I found Van Buren County very interesting. You've got one stoplight in the entire county," Dorgan said. Bonaparte, one of the villages of Van Buren County, is the smallest town in the United States with a Main Street program.

Dorgan becomes animated talking about Bonaparte. He said events in town routinely have about one-third of the population volunteering their help. The town rebuilt itself twice in recent history, once after years of decline and again after floods wiped away that first effort. Its downtown is a tourist destination.

"Here's a town that's done everything right ... and they're still convinced everything could evaporate. It's a really tough situation to be in right now," Dorgan said. "A lot of stuff does happen here and I think everyone realizes that."

That's not to say there aren't real risks. Small towns do need to focus on specific issues to maintain themselves.

"One of the losses is the youth. The brain drain, people call it," Dorgan said. While the situation isn't new, he said small towns should look at ways to keep young people around. Opportunities for local investing are key. He points to Burlington as an example. "Burlington's got a really great small business incubator," he said.

It works like this. A startup can move into a storefront office space free of charge for up to six months. The space is shared with other new businesses. It gives the new company an address and access to business items like computers, fax machines and the Internet.

After six months, businesses face a choice. They can move out, or they can stay and pay rent. They receive up to another six months if they stay.

By centralizing the efforts, new businesses have a chance to work with each other. They form new networks and groups. They have contacts.

"What a great opportunity to set up shop and have an address," Dorgan exclaimed. There are few reasons such an idea can't be duplicated, he said. The institute gives people a chance to share ideas like the Burlington incubator. If it works, great. If not, you have more information to work with next time.

It's not all serious, though. The institute publishes a quarterly magazine called "Fishwrap."

"We wanted something that was a bit tongue in cheek," Dorgan said. "It was sort of a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously."

About a third of the issues go to Iowa readers. The rest circulate around the rest of the country. A map on the back shows where the articles inside come from.

The magazine covers serious articles, photos and fiction. It's eclectic. There's a sense that the publication has a quirky personality.

Just like a lot of the places the institute focuses on.

Matt Milner can be reached at (641) 683-5359 or via e-mail at

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