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Iola sees need for broadband

Roundtable discusses how to attract newcomers

By Jane Myhra

Broadband service was identified as the No. 1 need for Iola during the annual roundtable meeting.

Other needs included more rental properties and attracting residents by improving the area’s quality of life.

Sponsored by the Iola-Scandinavia Area Chamber of Commerce, the Iola Roundtable on March 3 allowed each civic group and business to talk about its needs and upcoming events.

After hearing a synopsis from each group or business, UW-Extension specialists talked about “Increasing Economic Vitality in Downtown Iola. Presenters were Jessica Beckendorf, Waupaca County community development educator, and Bill Ryan, UW-Extension community business development specialist.

Both Beckendorf and Ryan were impressed with the community representatives.

“There is so much going on here,” Ryan said, “so much excitement.”

“That is the neat thing about this area,” said I-S Chamber President Greg Loescher, “The community gets behind something and it gets done.”

There was discussion on the future needs for the community.

Joe Opperman, from the Iola Car Show, identified consistent access to the Internet as a need.

“More broadband services are needed by young professionals,” he said. “We are so bogged down.”

Opperman said having broadband access would allow everyone to have Internet access during the annual Iola Car Show.

“Broadband is becoming such a necessity for quality of life,” he said. “With some creativity and some infrastructure, we can compete with anybody.”

With more and more people working from home, Beckendorf said broadband access could also potentially increase residential growth in the area.

“We need something in this community that will attract some young people,” said Greg Loeser, CEO of Iola Living Assistance, Inc. “There’s no backfill of young people to take our place.”

According to Loeser, it is difficult to find staffing for the ILA facilities. He said one of the contributing factors is a lack of available rental properties in Iola.

Beckendorf agreed it is a good idea to improve the area’s infrastructure and services to attract new residents.

“The new trend is that people are deciding where they want to be and then trying to find a job,” she said. “Make your community attractive to them.”

“There are a lot of remote jobs,” said Mary Olson, of Iola Tax Place. “The biggest problem is Internet connection.”

According to Beckendorf, Scandinavia is near the top of Wisconsin’s list for communities that attract young people.
Beckendorf and Ryan talked about working to increase tourism by promoting Iola as a destination.

“I see tourism dollars as being kind of empty,” said Phil Johnsrud, of the Iola Winter Sports Club. “It helps everybody have a better time, but it doesn’t help the next person down the street.”

“The next strategy beyond (attracting) tourism is a slow process,” Beckendorf said, “but it could end up being a bigger deal.”

Ryan encouraged the community members to form a committee to implement a market analysis and begin working on a Downtown Revitalization Plan.

Beckendorf said it is UW-Extension’s job to make sure the committee has the tools it needs. “Our job is to facilitate the process,” she said.

Ryan said most small downtowns are facing empty store fronts, deteriorated infrastructures and a marginal business base.

He said the three most common businesses in rural downtowns are taverns, restaurants and service businesses, such as tattoo parlors.

Beckendorf presented the 10 most used strategies for revitalizing small, rural downtowns.

The top strategies included keeping the downtown area clean, having stakeholder participation and developing a master plan, hosting festivals and events and marketing the downtown area as a destination.

The Iola Community and Downtown Development Plan adopted in November of 2000 included in its statement “To grow better, not just bigger,” and “maintain quaint, rural character.”

Beckendorf asked those in attendance if the goals set in 2000 were reached. The group agreed most of the goals have been achieved.

According to Loescher, Iola benefitted from participation in the Hometown Program from 2008 through 2011.

“There were some benefits of that program we still use today,” he said.

Loescher said the program initiated the Thursday Night on Main concert series and the chamber packet program, which have continued.

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