Every community has its own story, something that gives it and its residents a common identity. When people, Iowans at least, think of West Bend, a town of 785 residents that sits in both Palo Alto and Kossuth counties in north-central Iowa, they usually picture the Grotto of Redemption, frequently called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
However, the local residents’ never-say-die spirit and willingness to invest their hard-earned financial resources in the community to ensure West Bend continues down a successful path is another attribute that makes the city unique.
• West Bend is a community that believes in the benefits of local investing.
• In the past 30 years community leaders have rallied local residents to the cause.
• They’ve helped save local businesses, create new ones and kept schools open.
“West Bend is a tremendous example of a community that truly believes in the benefits of ‘locavesting.’ That is, investing money in local businesses or community-betterment efforts to improve the community in which you live,” says Bill Menner, state director of USDA’s Rural Development agency in Iowa. “While this is a fairly new term, it is something residents in and around West Bend have been doing for years.”
During the past 30 years community leaders have put out multiple calls to residents asking them to help save local businesses, create new ones and even keep the local school from closing.
Community rallies together
“The community has rallied together so many times it is hard to keep track,” says Marlene Banwart, real estate agent and businesswoman in West Bend. “It all starts with someone having an idea, and someone expanding on that idea. That’s the way lots of things happen in West Bend.”
One of the first community projects was a medical clinic. A group of concerned residents organized in 1976 to raise money for a new medical clinic. West Bend’s local doctor was retiring, and the committee understood a new medical clinic was important to attracting a new doctor. Today, the clinic is still open and serves the medical needs of residents in West Bend and many surrounding committees.
Another locavesting opportunity in West Bend was the local lumberyard. “In the mid-1990s we faced the real prospect of losing our lumberyard,” says Lisa Sewell, city clerk in West Bend. “It was amazing how the community rallied together to keep the business going by purchasing shares in the business to create a community-owned business.”
Today, nearly 20 years later, Community Lumber Supply remains owned by shareholders and is a strong, striving business. Around the same time, 20 years ago, West Bend was in jeopardy of losing its Ford dealership. The business was struggling and in need of capital, so shares were again sold to the community.
“If people have a monetary investment in the business they have extra motivation to seeing that it succeeds,” notes Banwart. “Nothing keeps you in your home community like having a monetary stake in a local business.”
In 2002 a new hotel opened in the community thanks, in part, to local residents purchasing shares totaling $430,000 to help with financing. The hotel, which replaced a small motel built in the 1950s and in desperate need of upgrades, includes a pool that is used for water aerobics and exercise classes for the community.
The community golf course was also made possible by local investors. The most recent example of locavesting has helped keep West Bend’s school open.
Four years ago the local school district received warning from the state that it needed to replenish its reserve funds or face the prospects of possibly losing its school through forced consolidation.
“A community fundraising campaign was organized with the money going to the school through the [West Bend-Mallard] Achievement Foundation,” says Sewell. “Within 18 days $850,000 had been deposited into the foundation’s account and the school’s reserve fund was more than replenished.”
Today, the WBM Achievement Foun-dation continues to support school activities and school programs, such as industrial arts, art, music and family and consumer science, which are typically cut when budgets are tight. All foundation activities are made possible through donations from members of the community.
Roots are growing strong
“Businesses that succeed in West Bend are the ones that have local roots,” says Don Miller, chief executive officer, Northwest Telephone Cooperative Association. “One tremendous example is Country Maid, one of the community’s largest employers.”
Country Maid, makers of the Butter Braid line of pastries, recently celebrated its 20th year in business in West Bend. The company moved into a new 43,000-square-foot office and production space in 2009, thanks to support from many local, regional, state and federal agencies.
“With the rapid increase in our business, we needed more space, and we really wanted to stay here in West Bend,” says Darin Massner, chief executive officer of Country Maid. “The community support made the construction of our new facility in the new industrial park possible.”
Leach is the public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.
SAVE OUR SCHOOLS: A recent communitywide fundraising effort helped keep the West Bend Community School District open. Rallying to the cause, a committee raised $850,000 in 18 days.