Located eight miles north of Humboldt and twelve miles west of Moran, Iola is the population and jobs center of the county, with 44% of residents living in the city of Iola, and more than half of all Allen Countians living within a three mile radius of Iola.
As the county seat Iola is the home to a majority of the public sector jobs in the county, and it is likewise Allen County’s service and industrial center, with a total of 3,625 jobs based in Iola and the areas immediately surrounding. Iola is also the primary shopping center for Allen County, southern Anderson County and Woodson County, with local and “big box” retailers attracting large numbers of shoppers to town.
Iola has the county’s strongest economy and largest population, but the community is nevertheless faced with serious challenges. Perhaps most importantly, Iola’s population is dropping at a rapid rate. At the beginning of this decade the U.S. Census showed 6,302 residents. Just 7 years later Iola was down to 5,843, a decrease of 7.3%, or approximately 1% per year.
Iola’s status as a retail center comprised primarily of local merchants has diminished over the past 15 years, with the closing of the community’s last standalone shoe store and hardware store, the loss of longstanding, locally-owned clothing stores, and the realignment of the Iola square away from retail stores and toward office and non-profit uses. Iola faces the prospect of several retirements of longstanding merchants in the coming years as well.
While local ownership of retail stores in Iola is significantly less common than it was even 20 years ago, Iola’s retail sector remains the envy of many communities. A 1% local sales tax generates over $1.1 million annually (50% for street improvements and 50% for the general fund) to fund street improvements and general operations of the city of Iola. Retail is an important magnet that brings both dollars and jobs to Iola.
Iolans are proud of their community. They spring to action when help is needed, as demonstrated by the enormous outpouring of assistance that came from local residents during the Great Flood of 2007. Iolans are strong supporters of the arts, with a city band, the Iola Area Symphony Orchestra, the Iola Community Theatre and the Bowlus Fine Arts Center playing central roles in the lives of many residents. And they are proud of their status as an important industrial center for this region, thanks to the efforts of local businesspeople and groups like Iola Industries and the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce.
Iola has had its share of difficult times, particularly recently. But the community remains determined to hold onto its status as a leading town within 20 southeast Kansas. With the right leadership and a concrete vision for where it wants to go, it can happen.
With a median age of 35.9, Iola residents have the third-lowest median age in Allen County and are only slightly above the national median age of 35.3 years.
Given the correlation between age and health it is possible that Iola residents may be, on average, somewhat healthier than the average Allen Countian. That said, we believe that Iola residents do not differ significantly from the average resident of any community in the county, with obesity and smoking ranking as major health challenges, and heart disease, diabetes and lower respiratory diseases all posing major challenges to community health and well-being.
Obesity, as with most communities in the county, is a growing problem in Iola. This is particularly true among children, many of whom increasingly choose video games and television over more traditional physical activities like riding bikes or playing on playgrounds. Sedentary lifestyles, and the poor diets that often accompany them, sentence many children to shorter, less productive and less fulfilling lives.
Though we lack city-level statistics, cigarette smoking is prevalent in Iola, and there are no restrictions–beyond those in state law–on smoking in establishments that serve the public, namely restaurants and bars. Smokeless (chewing) tobacco use is also prevalent, particularly among high school students and other youth. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reports that 23.3% of residents in Allen, Anderson, Bourbon, Linn and Woodson counties smoke cigarettes; we estimate that Allen County generally, and Iola specifically, are at or above this figure.
Iola has the most recreation and wellness facilities in the county, 100% of the MDs, and DOs and the county’s only hospital. Yet Iola has not made a focused community effort to tackle the challenges of improving public health and encouraging healthy lifestyles through an effort like the Healthy Humboldt Initiative. (Thrive is a focused community effort to improve public health and is headquartered in Iola, but it is a countywide organization that works in all communities, not just Iola). The substantial infrastructure and expertise that exists in Iola could—and should—be applied toward addressing health challenges in that community.
Iola is the healthcare center of Allen County, with Allen County Hospital and all medical doctors (MDs) and doctors of osteopathy (DOs) in the county practicing in Iola, along with a majority of the county’s dentists and optometrists.
Allen County Hospital is a 25-bed critical access facility comprised of 14 doctors on staff that include primary care physicians, specialists in general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, radiology and urology. In 2008 ACH employed 155 full and parttime staff, making it one of the larger employers in Iola. As a Critical Access Hospital ACH has the potential for enhanced revenues from Medicare, which provides improved financial viability for hospitals in rural areas like ours.
The impact of Allen County Hospital on the county’s economy is tremendous. The Kansas Rural Health Options Project (2006) identified the hospital sector in Allen County as having an employment multiplier of 1.57, which means that for every job at Allen County Hospital another .57 jobs are created in other businesses and industries in Allen County. Using this approach, with 155 employees ACH’s actual impact on area employment is 243 jobs (155 x 1.57 = 243).
On the economic side, ACH has an income multiplier of 1.31, meaning that for every dollar of income generated by the hospital another $.31 is generated in other businesses and industries in Allen County. Using 2003 figures, ACH’s $5.4 million payroll, with a 1.31 economic multiplier, had a total impact on Iola and Allen County of $7.14 million dollars, including $2.3 million in retail sales. As a private hospital operator HCA also pays property taxes to Allen County.
ACH is owned by Allen County but leased to HCA, the nation’s largest privately owned hospital chain, and it plays a major role in the Iola community both as a healthcare provider and economic engine. Under the leadership of new CEO Joyce Heismeyer ACH has taken highly positive steps to regain its status within Iola and the county as a leading voice for healthcare and healthy lifestyles. The hospital is profitable, and it is actively recruiting new medical professionals to Allen County to expand the range of services it offers. Discussions are underway within the community about the potential for a major renovation/expansion project or construction of an entirely new facility.
Primary care services are also provided by two private medical clinics in Iola: The Family Physicians, with four practicing physicians, and Preferred Medical Associates, with two practicing physicians. The Family Physicians, in conjunction with Iola Pharmacy, recently completed a new $3.6 million facility in East Iola to better serve their patients. Preferred Medical Associates is currently recruiting a new physician to replace Dr. Richard Hull, who retired this year. Both clinics provide a full array of primary care services, including obstetrics, and attract a patient base from Allen County and beyond.
Iola-based practicing physicians in 2008 are:
- Rebecca Lohman, MD
- Glen Singer, MD
- Tim Spears, DO
- Wesley Stone, DO
- Earl Walter, DO
- Brian Wolfe, MD
Iola is served by a total of five dentists, four in private practice and one through the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas’ (CHCSEK) Iola dental clinic:
- Jerry Chambers, DDS
- Vernon Lee, DDS
- Richard Potts, DDS
- Kelly Richardson, DDS
- John Travers, DDS
Improving oral health is a key priority of Thrive Allen County. The Thrive 2006 Allen County Needs Assessment showed that 27% of Southeast Kansas residents had not visited a dentist in the past 2 years. We estimate that these statistics have been improved for the children of Allen County through the annual dental screening conducted by the county’s dentists in conjunction with the SAFE BASE program.
Medicaid is now accepted at a majority of the county’s dental practices, which increases access to dental care for children. And finally, the CHCSEK’s Iola dental clinic (at the Family Physicians/Iola Pharmacy clinic) provides a vital link in serving the uninsured and indigent, regardless of age.
There are two optometry practices in Iola: Dr. Robert Smith, and Iola Vision Source. These practices provide a full array of optometry services to their patients. Iola Vision Source is also a participant in the See to Learn program, which provides free eye exams to children 3 years of age regardless of whether a family has insurance.
Iola’s practicing optometrists in 2008 are:
- Douglas Donnelly, OD
- Matthew Skahan, OD
- Robert Smith, OD
Iola has three chiropractic practices:
- Dr. Larry A. Buck
- Dr. Steven Leonard
- Dr. Cary Minor
Iola’s chiropractic practices serve large numbers of patients from Iola and a multi-county region, and are an important part of Iola’s health care infrastructure.
Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center (SEKMHC), established in 1961, is based in Iola and serves as the mental health safety net for the poor and underserved in 6 counties, including Allen. SEKMHC’s mission is to provide, advocate, and coordinate quality mental health care services and programs for people in its service area. The Center and its staff are currently pursuing an expansion of programs to include mental health services targeted to the 18% of Allen County residents who are 65 or older.
The Iola office of the SEK Multi- County Health Department provides a variety of reducedcost health services including flu shots, immunizations, blood pressure and blood glucose checks, physical exams and family planning. Established in 1972, the Iola office also provides services for children with special health care needs and acts as a “safety net” to ensure that uninsured and underinsured residents’ basic health needs are met.
Iola is served by two pharmacies: The Iola Pharmacy and Wal-Mart Pharmacy.
Iola Pharmacy, with two Iola stores and a pharmacy at Allen County Hospital, has emerged as a major regional pharmaceutical provider. Wal- Mart Pharmacy is located inside Iola’s Wal-Mart store and provides full prescription services and the volume discounts of a large national retailer.
Both pharmacies have a reach well beyond Iola, serving a trade area throughout this region.
PARKS AND RECREATION
Iola is fortunate to have over 100 acres of public parks, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, tennis courts, a two mile walking trail, a variety of recreation programs and annual public funding through the City of Iola to support these important quality of life services.
The City of Iola Parks Department maintains the city’s five parks (East Iola, Cofachique, Meadowbrook, North Walnut Road and Riverside), the local portion of the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail, and other public space throughout Iola. The newly established Recreation Department provides a variety of recreation services ranging from basketball leagues to coloring contests to yoga classes and is an important part of Iola’s quality of life infrastructure.
Unlike many communities, Iola has the resources to maintain a full-time recreation department that coordinates recreational programming for the community, and a relative abundance of facilities available throughout the city. Recent moves by the City of Iola have elevated the prominence and importance of the city’s recreation department, which gives hope for an expansion of services, better coordination of facilities and a more robust menu of rec services, year-round, for all residents.
It is also important to note that recreation services in Iola, as in most communities, tend to be focused around summer activities for children. This limits the ability of all residents to achieve an important health goal: year-round exercise. And, while Iola has several gymnasiums and other public spaces, the lack of low-impact exercise venues, particularly including a public indoor pool, stands as another area for improvement that could not only help existing residents stay healthy, but also help attract new residents and businesses to Iola.
The availability of good quality affordable housing presents a major obstacle to stabilizing Iola’s falling population, just as it does in communities across Allen County. Accounting for the destruction of nearly 100 homes in the Great Flood of 2007 there are approx imately 3,250 housing units in Iola, with an average household size of 2.29 people.
Approximately 1,100 of Iola’s housing units were built prior to 1939, with many of these likely being built in the first decade of the 20th century. Iola has a higher percentage of renters than other communities in the county, with 30% of Iolans renting, 60% owning their homes and a 10% vacancy rate.
A 10% vacancy rate would normally suggest an abundance of housing options. In fact, this rate reflects the overall poor quality of housing in Iola rather than a lack of demand. These vacant units, many of which are “smelter houses” built for industrial workers at the turn of the 20th century, are typically small, energy inefficient homes that lack modern amenities that would make them attractive to buyers in today’s market.
A further complication is that the economics of new home construction make it difficult to construct new units on a large scale in a community where 33% of households have incomes of less than $25,000 per year. That said, some limited home construction by private developers has been underway in Iola in recent years, and the announcement in 2008 that a private developer would construct 30 single family rentals targeted to workers at 80% of the area median income (AMI) at Cedarbrook was greeted enthusiastically by Iola officials and businesses.
More must be done, however. Aggressive and thorough code enforcement is a critical element in convincing builders to invest in existing neighborhoods. Iola would be well-served to follow Humboldt’s lead in aggressively citing code violations and razing properties where violations are not addressed by their owners.
Incentives to construct new housing are important as well. Iola wisely pursued state grant dollars to build the infrastructure required for the Cedarbrook development; this enables the developer to build more units than had originally been planned. The City of Iola also refunds almost the entire cost of razing dilapidated houses to owners who apply in advance and agree to build a new house on the site within one year. Other incentives the city could consider include:
- Purchasing and “bundling” residential properties and selling them below cost to developers that would be required to build new homes on them within a specified period (i.e., 12 months). The property taxes generated by the new homes would, over time, cover the gap between what the city paid and the discounted price to the developer. This same approach is used by cities nationwide to incentivize new home construction, and has been used locally in industrial recruitment.
- Refunding the cost of the city razing dilapidated homes regardless of whether the current owner had signed up prior to the home being razed.
BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY
As noted throughout, Iola is the commercial center of Allen County, with a majority of the jobs, stores and businesses in Allen County located within its city limits. Iolans are more likely than the average county resident to work in the manufacturing sector, with a total 30% of Iolans employed in one of Iola’s industries.
Iola has experienced more than its share of challenges in recent years. The impact of the Great Flood of 2007 on Iola’s physical infrastructure, housing stock, economy, and, most importantly, real people is difficult to overstate. Though the waters have long since receded, the aftereffects of the flood continue to manifest themselves in the daily lives of Iola residents.
Housing is Iola’s primary challenge. The City of Iola and the business community must develop a comprehensive approach for building new housing in the city to stop Iola’s population decline.
Just as importantly, there is no specific vision for where Iola is going and what type of community it wants to be. The community should undertake a visioning process to develop an action plan for the next decade.
And finally, with the exception of Precision Downhole Pump’s relocation in 2004 from Humboldt, Iola has not had a major industrial recruitment since the 1994 decision by Russell Stover Candies to build a new facility. Yet attracting new jobs, particularly those paying competitive wages, is difficult without a better qualified workforce. Recent layoffs and the elimination of manufacturing lines at industries in Iola is likely to result in a larger pool of qualified workers than Iola has seen in many years—IF those workers stay in Allen County. A workforce development effort designed to train local workers in the skills they need to be competitive is critical if Iola is to retain its existing employers and recruit new businesses.
Iola is the envy of many Kansas communities. It has established itself as a regional shopping center, and it has a sizable industrial base that anchors the community’s economic fortunes.
Iola has an opportunity to attract new residents by marketing itself to the large percentage of workers who live outside of Iola and Allen County. With a threatening global economy and gas prices at historic highs this year, it is likely that more families are feeling financial pressure to move closer to their jobs. If Iola can construct affordable housing that meets the demands of the market it has a reasonable chance at converting these workers into residents.
Iola also offers an arts and cultural scene that is rare for small towns in the Midwest. These unique offerings can and should be better marketed as a reason for living in, and visiting, Iola.
Iola has strong business and community leaders who can accomplish nearly anything they set their minds to. These are the leaders who have recruited industries to Iola, led charitable drives, and pushed for the public works projects that make communities more attractive for business. If the efforts of these leaders are FOCUSED around one to three goals for improving Iola, particularly in conjunction with a strategic plan for the community, there is nothing they cannot accomplish. Iola has done it before and it can do it again.