A career as a reporter and in various economic and rural development roles has taken Bill Menner across the state and to Iowa communities of all sizes. As the executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council since 2017, he has the opportunity to work with leaders from these communities to help them grow, prosper and plan for the future.
Menner served as the state director of USDA Rural Development in Iowa from 2009 through 2016, charged with carrying out the Administration’s strategy for increasing economic opportunity and improving the quality of life for all rural Americans. He brings a strong working knowledge of federal programs, non-profit and philanthropic partners, and local innovation, having also served as executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development and is the founder and CEO of The Bill Menner Group, a rural-focused consultancy.
His first career was in public radio, spending 15 years as a reporter in Ohio and Iowa covering government and politics. He has also written three books: one on historic postcards from Grinnell, Iowa, another on the famed Louis Sullivan-designed bank in Grinnell, and one with his wife about the 2020 Iowa Caucuses.
1. What brought you to Iowa?
I’m a “trailing spouse”! My wife got a job teaching at Grinnell College so we moved here from Ohio. We had a two-week old son when we moved. Then another son. And a daughter. And another daughter. Then my wife got tenure. Then three of our kids went to Grinnell College (one went to the University of Iowa!). And we stayed!
2. What are the priorities of the Iowa Rural Development Council? How does it serve communities and businesses?
The Iowa Rural Development Council is focused on supporting rural communities by connecting them to resources, best practices and successful case studies, assisting them in their efforts to build vibrant places, and elevating the opportunities and challenges related to rural. Our organization is a collection of many entities – from federal and state government agencies to utilities and non-profits and for-profits – each with an interest in the future of rural Iowa. We try to bridge those partners with the communities looking to make things happen.
3. What excites you about economic development and innovation in rural Iowa?
What excites me the most is the fact that there is this universe of smart, creative people who choose to live in rural Iowa. They are invested in their communities and want to make things happen right there. They have made that strategic decision on where to locate, so they can focus their energy on their business, their vision and their future … all in small-town Iowa.
Rural communities take many different approaches to supporting entrepreneurs or business owners. The cities themselves can offer financial incentives. Chambers of Commerce can provide technical support. Financial institutions can extend capital. But I think the biggest factor is the willingness or rural residents to support their own. We’ve seen the impact of the pandemic on retail and food service – and frankly it’s up to the people who live in small towns to ensure the future of these businesses.
4. What advice would you give someone considering a move to Iowa?
I would recommend that they do a lot of research into where they want to live. I’ve commuted many, many miles over my career because we wanted to live in Grinnell. Place matters – and someone looking to move to Iowa has lots of options from both a work perspective and a life perspective.
5. Please give us three recommendations of things to do or places to go in Iowa?
Come to downtown Grinnell and visit the Chamber of Commerce office, located in the Merchants National Bank building designed by Louis Sullivan (who was the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright). It’s one of the great buildings in America.
Stay at the Park Inn in downtown Mason City. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s last surviving hotel project and it’s amazing. While you’re in Mason City, visit the Rock Crest/Rock Glen historic district and see a bunch of amazing homes – many designed by Wright’s protégé Walter Burley Griffin.
Drive the loop around the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, see the bison, and visit the educational center. Iowa was once 99% prairie and the refuge provides some perspective on the state and what it looked like not all that long ago!
Published March 2023.