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Expanding opportunities

Hamilton Hometowns — a new name, the same mission

— Submitted photo Community members take part in Hamilton Hometowns Hoopla in Jewell in September 2016. The event included a social media scavenger hunt.

Hamilton Hometowns is now the name of Hamilton County SEED, the county-wide economic development organization that has been active since the 1980s.

While the change came about in 2015, the goals of the group are the same: expand employment opportunities, improve the tourism economy, promote downtown revitalization, and create more vibrant communities.

“We kept our over-reaching goals,” said Sarah Thompson, executive director of Hamilton Hometowns since 2013. “The re-branding just gave us all a shot in the arm. Using the term SEED, which means Support Enriching Economic Development, didn’t always make it clear that we were about economic development.”

There are four towns who are members and work together, all of them located along state highway 175 in the southern part of Hamilton County: Stratford, Stanhope, Jewell, and Ellsworth. Dues to be a member of Hamilton Hometowns are $4 per capita. Board members come from each community and include two representatives from rural areas.

There is a lot of value in these four communities working together on economic development issues in southern Hamilton County, Thompson believes. “When we’re all working together, we generate more ideas,” Thompson said. “We focus on working together, and everyone on the board likes to see others succeed in their communities, too. There’s an economic development benefit to marketing together.”

Polly Hayes, the Stanhope representative to the board, agrees with the executive director’s assessment. “When small towns support each other, then I believe economic development will fall into place,” she comments. “Every small town has its own little niche that will bring in visitors, which is the biggest challenge. We have great people working this to make sure it happens.” Hayes was appointed to the board in 2011.

“It’s so nice to work in communities who work together,” Thompson noted. “I have the best board because they are open.”

Improving the image of small-town life is one focus of the board and director. “We’re trying to get everyone to think about what they can get here and not have to go out of the community, I think one struggle is that people believe they will have to drive somewhere to do anything,” Thompson stated. “And it’s a struggle to get people to understand that there are lots of opportunities here. We need to get the perception out of people’s heads that ‘oh, it’s just a small town.'”

The draw for businesses to locate in a small town, Thompson believes, are things like lower rent and overhead, a supportive community, and opportunities for growth. She said she recently had two inquiries from businesses looking for a good place to locate. Part of her job is to have on file details about properties in each town that are available for business development.

“If anyone contacts me, I would be glad to chat with them,” Thompson stated.

Getting people who are looking for housing to consider living in one of the Hamilton Hometowns is another aspect of the efforts of Thompson and the board, as is having more housing available in those communities. “I think there’s a movement toward minimalist and easy. People are starting to see the benefit of slowing down, spending more time with family. And it’s not unusual for people to work from home now.

“The cost of housing is more reasonable in small towns. It’s safe. Kids can play outside, go to the park, go and explore. People need to learn to enjoy quiet and peacefulness,” she went on. “Hamilton Hometowns are good places to live for both families and retirees.”

It’s not all business for the board, though. They have twice sponsored Hamilton Hoopla in the fall, and plans are underway for the third annual event in September. The top prize for the social media scavenger hunt is $1,000, and the day concludes with a beer garden. Details and registration information can be found at www.hamiltonhometowns.com

In addition to the Hamilton Hometowns board members, Thompson also works with an administrative assistant, Rebecca Mines, in their office in the conservation building at Briggs Woods Park. Often she can be found, though, traveling throughout the Hamilton Hometowns area, meeting with business owners and just getting better acquainted in those towns.

Because each of the four towns has their own individual development groups with objectives and agendas, she attends those meetings when she can.

“That’s lots of meetings for me,” Thompson admits with a smile, “but I really enjoy being able to go to the communities. When I started, I wasn’t acquainted, but now I know who to talk to.”

So what has she learned about small-town Iowa, and especially Hamilton County, during those visits as executive director of Hamilton Hometowns? Thompson is quick to answer. “I’ve learned there are good people who are willing to work together. They support each other. They care about their communities and are willing to work for them.”

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