Residents in Bellevue, Iowa (pop. 2,200) launched Community Heart & Soul® in 2016 focused on getting everyone involved in setting priorities for strengthening their town. The town received a $47,000 USDA Rural Business Development Grant to support the effort.
Bellevue is on the Mississippi River about a half-hour drive south of Dubuque, where many commute for work. The two biggest businesses in town employ a total of 265.
As part of Community Heart & Soul, hundreds of residents participated in engagement activities at the places where they gather, including a rodeo and the annual Heritage Days. Three hundred middle and high school students, which is half the student body, responded to a survey to gather their perspectives on the town.
Community Heart & Soul helped to bring the town’s assets into focus. Natural beauty, parks, and trails ranked high on the list of assets. Heritage along with the close-knit community, neighborhood pride, and support for youth were also valued. The project identified opportunities for growth including drawing Millennials and young families to the town.
“We want the message to be, ‘You can thrive here, not just survive here,’” said Claira Sieverding, a Millennial who works and lives in Bellevue and was a leader in Community Heart & Soul.
With strengths in mind and opportunities for growth on the radar, Community Heart & Soul helped guide several actions supported by what matters most to residents.
• Understanding the importance of drawing Millennials to the town, Bellevue applied for and was selected as a pilot program to study childcare needs headed up by the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque as part of a program pioneered by the Rural Economic Development Philanthropy Innovators Network;
• With heritage as a shared community value, the town applied for and won a $100,000 state Catalyst Building Grant to begin restoration and revitalization of an historic building on the riverfront. Bellevue’s project application was one of 18 selected statewide from a pool of 60. The application was aided by data gathered during the Heart & Soul project. The long vacant limestone structure that dramatically juts out over the river has been a grain storage facility, button factory (the buttons were punched out of clamshells from the river) and a laundromat;
• Based on Heart & Soul survey results an effort was made to increase youth participation in the community. The 16-member Hometown Pride Committee, which will build on the work of Community Heart & Soul, includes four students. During Heart & Soul, 85% of middle and high school students surveyed said they had never been asked for their ideas about how to make Bellevue better—and 69% said they would get more involved if asked.
Dave Heiar, director of Jackson County Economic Alliance, has been involved in Community Heart & Soul since the project started. He grew up in Bellevue. He sees reason for optimism based on a finding from the youth survey: 71% said they would like to stay in Bellevue.
“When I was in high school, I wouldn’t have said that. I wanted to get out of Bellevue. A few years out, I wanted to get back, but when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have said that,” Heiar said. “I was awed by how many high school age students said they’d like to stay in the area.”