Just outside tiny Sheffield, Iowa, a modern steel and glass office building has sprung up next to a cornfield. Behind it, there's a plant that employs almost 700 workers making Sukup brand steel grain bins. The factory provides an economic anchor for Sheffield, population 1,125.
Charles Sukup, the company's president, says that even though workers can be hard to come by, there are no plans to relocate.
"Our philosophy is you bloom where you're planted," Sukup says with a smile.
Many small towns would love to be in Sheffield's position, with a thriving factory providing good-paying jobs. And Sheffield has civic pride: the West Fork Wharf restaurant features tabletops cut out of the old high school gym floor, local memorabilia displays and sandwiches recalling sports rivalries. People are excited about the recently opened coffee shop in the old city hall building. But Sheffield is still a small, remote, rural town, and for all its blessings, it is nonetheless losing population. According to census estimates, the numbers slipped by about 4 percent between 2010 and 2016.
Population loss like Sheffield's is happening in small towns across the U.S. "The big picture for all rural communities that don't have a connection to a growing metro area is that they are going to get smaller over time," says Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University.
Zarecor argues that towns like Sheffield shouldn't spend money trying to lure new residents to shore up their population numbers. She says instead, they should focus on making life better for the residents they still have. In fact, she's devoting a lot of her energy to the cause she calls "The Shrink Smart Project."
It's an idea that dawned on Zarecor when she studied in Ostrava, a city in the Czech Republic that saw its coal and steel industry collapse 30 years ago, with the end of the Cold War.
"Ostrava is a place that's shrinking, losing people, but it's still a place that people love to live in, are very loyal to," Zarecor says. "And it's also a place that outsiders look at and think, I don't want to be there."
Sounds like any number of small America towns, right?
Eva Spackova, an architecture professor at the Technical University of Ostrava, says her city embraced a paradigm shift when the bottom fell out of the local economy — one that's similar to the the change some parents make when the last kid leaves the house and they decide to downsize.
"It's stupid to think about big family if your children don't live with you. But it's good to think about a nice home where your children can come sometime. This is the idea," Spackova says with a chuckle.
By embracing the idea that it can both shrink and improve, Ostrava has cleaned up pollution and revitalized some of its older neighborhoods. The old, industrial city has reinvented itself as a cultural hotbed with avant-garde theater and events like Colours of Ostrava, an annual music festival held in an abandoned iron works.
Kimberly Zarecor and her colleague at Iowa State, Dave Peters, want to bring that kind of thinking to rural America.
Peters says they're conducting surveys to figure out how some remote small towns are already making residents' life better, even as their populations drain away. He says there are some standouts — such as Sac City, Iowa, whose population is estimated at 2,105 and falling. The numbers are down by a third since a farm equipment manufacturer closed its factory there in the 1980s.
"Sac City is probably one of our best examples of Shrink Smart, in that the quality of the services, the quality of the government, the quality of the community, it's phenomenal," Peters says.
Despite the decline in residents, Sac City, named for the Sac Indian tribe, teems with civic energy. The town boasts a hospital, a nice rec center, two pools, public schools, a library, robust day care, even a roadside attraction, the World's Largest Popcorn Ball — a confection that weighs more than 4.5 tons.
The Sac City Community Foundation is thriving, and everyone on its board is involved in one of the half-dozen other charitable foundations operating in this tiny town, or in local government, or both. If the group decides to spend a few hundred dollars on a permanent bike pump along the trail in town, not only do they personally know the person in charge of the project and the other funders, but they most likely know the person who'll be installing the pump.
Board member Steve Irwin says Sac City's "secret sauce" is people: super-involved citizens, willing to work together for the good of the town. "We always seem to have a champion for a project, somebody or some group that kind of takes the lead," Irwin says.
Progress can still be slow and frustrating. Not all of the community-development projects work out, and with such a small population it's hard to attract new employers and jobs. Irwin freely admits that the town would prefer to grow instead of shrink, but in the meantime, he says leaders here have made progress on the quality-of-life fundamentals.
"It's more about how the people feel about their town. Are they happy? Do they have a sense of community? Do they have the essentials of life? Do they have health care and recreation?" Irwin asks.
Sac City's momentum got a huge — and rather startling — boost three years ago, when lifelong resident John Criss died. Criss ran the men's clothing store in Sac City, a business he took over from his father. He was a bachelor and left almost all of his estate, $5.7 million, to a fund to beautify the town.
The signs of that work are all over Sac City. There's new landscaping with big limestone blocks; they spruced up the library, the cemetery and the rec center; installed new playground equipment and tennis courts and built a new community building, just for starters. Soon, statues will line Main Street, and decorative new street signs will pop up at almost every corner.
The bequest came as a complete surprise, even to Renae Jacobsen, who Criss left in charge of the fund.
"I think it was just his way of giving back to the town," Jacobsen says, sitting outside the new entryway to the rec center. "He probably saw that it needed some beautification, some work. Probably just didn't want to see it die out ... like so many small towns do."
Global economic forces will likely keep grinding away at remote rural towns. But people in Sac City and other towns like it hope that by working collaboratively, they can improve quality of life little by little and keep making themselves better — if smaller — places to live.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some researchers think they've found a way for rural towns to manage an almost universal problem. Many rural American towns face depopulation. They've been declining in population for decades. Some hope for big turnarounds that will draw people back, but the researchers in Iowa think there's a better way, a more practical way, borrowed from towns in Eastern Europe to improve even as they lose population. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Back when big families worked small farms, Americans built tens of thousands of towns that those families relied on to sell their crops and to buy just about everything else. Those days are long gone, and now remote, rural towns with a strong economic anchor are the lucky ones.
Business is booming here at Sukup manufacturing in Sheffield, Iowa. They make those big, round, steel bins you see dotting the grain belt. Charles Sukup says he's hiring about as fast as he can and already employs close to 700 people in this town of just over 1,100.
CHARLES SUKUP: Well, I guess our philosophy is you bloom where you're planted.
MORRIS: But Sukup's dedication to Sheffield hasn't been enough to shield it from the larger social and economic headwinds buffeting small towns.
KIMBERLY ZARECOR: The big picture for all rural communities that don't have a connection to a growing metro area is that they are going to get smaller over time.
MORRIS: Kimberly Zarecor teaches at Iowa State University and argues that little towns should stop beating themselves up for losing population and instead focus on making life better for the residents they still have.
ZARECOR: We call this the Shrink Smart Project.
MORRIS: It's an idea that dawned on Zarecor when she studied in a city in the Czech Republic, one that saw its local coal and steel industry collapse 30 years ago.
ZARECOR: Ostrava is a place that's shrinking, losing people, but it's still a place that people love to live in, are very loyal to. And it's also a place that outsiders look at and think, I don't want to be there.
MORRIS: Sounds like any number of small American towns, right? Zarecor says the difference is that Ostrava is embracing the idea that it can shrink and still improve. Zarecor and her colleague at Iowa State, Dave Peters, want to bring that paradigm shift to rural America. Peters says they're conducting surveys to figure out how it is that some remote, rural towns manage to make life better for their residents even as their populations drain away.
DAVE PETERS: So Sac City is probably one of our best examples of shrink smart in that the quality of the services, the quality of the government, the quality the community, it's phenomenal.
MORRIS: That's Sac City, Iowa - population 2,200 and falling.
MORRIS: It's 7 a.m. and members of the Sac City Community Foundation are discussing possible projects - $2,500 to build a bike path, maybe chipping in for a marketing campaign. Board member Steve Irwin says that while Sac City wants to grow, it's quality of life that comes first.
STEVE IRWIN: It's more about how the people feel about their towns. Are they happy? Do they have a sense of community? Do they have the essentials of life? Do they have health care and recreation?
MORRIS: Smaller than most cities' tiniest suburb, Sac City boasts a hospital, a nice rec center, two pools, schools, a library, robust day care, even a roadside attraction - the world's largest popcorn ball, a confection that weighs more than 4 1/2 tons - this in a town that's lost a big chunk of its economic base and a third of its population since the 1980s. Irwin says the secret sauce here is people, super-involved citizens, willing to work together for the good of the town.
IRWIN: You know, we always seem to have a champion for a project, somebody or some group or something that kind of takes the lead.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're gaining.
MORRIS: A couple of men are building a new shelter in Sac City's leafy cemetery. It's a very small part of the work funded by one of the town's former champions, John Criss, a local businessman who died and left $5.7 million to beautify Sac City. This came as a complete surprise, even to Renae Jacobsen, who Criss left in charge of the fund.
RENAE JACOBSEN: I think it was just his way of giving back to the town - probably saw that it needed some beautification, some work, and he just didn't want to see it die out like so many small towns do.
MORRIS: Global economic forces will likely keep grinding away at many remote, rural towns. But people in Sac City hope that by working collaboratively, they can little by little raise the quality of life even as population declines. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Sac City, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "DISTANCE TO GIBRALTAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.