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A Rural Economic Forum in Metropolitan Iowa

Today, Iowa performs a quick-change as it shifts from GOP straw-poll battleground to hosting President Obama’s bus tour of the Midwest. The caravan will park in Peosta, at Northeast Iowa Community College, for a White House Rural Economic Forum. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, now Agriculture secretary and chair of the White House Rural Council, notes that the president’s visit will focus on agriculture’s contribution to the national economy, and how to create more jobs in rural America.

But is Peosta actually in rural America? The answer may depend on what your definition of “rural” is.

One thing is for certain: Peosta is part of a metropolitan area. So says the president’s own Office of Management and Budget, which identifies Peosta’s surrounding Dubuque County as the Dubuque, IA metropolitan area. Peosta itself has only 1,377 residents, but the county (and metro area) is home to nearly 100,000 people. The Dubuque metro area is one of the nation’s smallest (ranked 353 out of 366), but is the fourth-largest that’s fully within the state of Iowa.

Being part of a metro area, however, doesn’t mean that a community can’t also be rural. For demographers, metro areas represent regional labor markets, composed of counties linked together by commuting patterns. Rural areas are defined instead by local population density, of generally less than 500 people per square mile. That’s why a little more than half of rural Americans actually live within metropolitan areas, mostly on the outskirts of metro counties.

Yet despite its small size and Heartland location, it’s not clear that Peosta is even all that rural. It’s more of a boomtown exurb, with 10 times as many residents today as in 1990. The past two decades have brought rapid housing and infrastructure development to this formerly sleepy farm town. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 90 percent of Peosta residents work outside the town--about two-thirds of them in the city of Dubuque, 13 miles away. 

Moreover, agriculture isn’t even a significant part of the local economy, accounting for less than 1 percent of earnings in the Dubuque metro area, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Manufacturing, health care, government, warehousing, and finance are the area’s largest industries. Peosta thus forms one part of a diverse regional economy--much like the rest of metropolitan America.

Of course, the White House might have selected Peosta not because it’s a stand-in for all of rural America, but because it’s not too far from their next destination in Western Illinois. Indeed, the forum is gathering leaders from rural communities across the country, not just Dubuque County, to discuss economic strategies for promoting rural prosperity.

But Peosta’s growing metropolitan-ness provides a reminder that metro areas generate the bulk of economic value, even in ostensibly rural states like Iowa. To wit: Iowa’s nine metro areas account for fully 63 percent of its GDP. They also house 71 percent of Iowa’s workers with a post-secondary degree, who will likely drive most of the state’s future economic growth. Metropolitan regions combine the innovative institutions, skilled workers, and critical infrastructure necessary to help places compete for jobs and investment in the international marketplace.

Today’s forum in Peosta, then, should focus not only on the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities alone, but also on how policy can forge more productive connections between rural areas and the wider metropolitan areas of which they often form a part. Agriculture, energy, workforce, environmental stewardship, congestion relief, natural experiences--all represent unique contributions that rural places can make to metropolitan prosperity.

Today’s conversation, then, should recognize that Peosta’s fate is intertwined with Dubuque’s. With the path to lasting U.S. economic recovery running primarily through our nation’s metropolitan economic engines, Peosta might just be an inspired choice for charting the future of rural policy in America.