A Visit to Akron, Iowa

Embedded Community Experience

Sharon Frerichs, the mayor of Akron, Iowa invited me to come and be a part of the Embedded Community Experience in September. I spent three days there.


I told the mayor, that once I stepped out of my car, I was hers. She took me at my word. The embedded community visit started at 11 a.m. Tuesday and we wrapped it up at 2 p.m. on Thursday. Many businesses were visited, as were the coffee groups. Tuesday evening, the City Council meeting hosted a question and answer session with me as the guest. Wednesday evening I presented to interested citizens about Innovative Rural Business Models. I explored empty buildings, visited non-profit groups, ate at local food places, spent some time at the river with Justin Higman and thoroughly enjoyed myself.


Location, location, location – you are the gateway to the Loess Hills, situated on the Big Sioux. This is a tourism dream! Start with activities you can do around the Big Sioux: canoeing, kayaking, fishing, etc. Don’t forget winter activities: ice fishing, snow shoeing, etc.

  • Local winery right in town.
  • An old hospital re-energized into a makerspace, a home for a local artist, housing a massage therapist and a collector of fine things, and room for more businesses.
  • Beautiful houses.
  • A local grocery store, pharmacist, medical clinic, local veterinarian, and local hardware.
  • Great places to eat and shop.
  • A school system envied by many and locals who support it. This includes the pre-school and the thrift shop that supports it.
  • Senior apartment living and nursing home, too.
  • A farmers market.
  • Local community theater.
  • Local musical education and entertainment.
  • A beautiful building that houses your history.
  • A campground area with cabins, RV space and activities.
  • Alternative healthcare options – massage therapy, essential oils, etc.
  • Hole in the Wall
  • Artists that live and work in your town

Suggestions for things you can do:

Big Ideas:

  1. Places to stay. Outside of the Hole in the Wall, there is not really anywhere for visitors to community to stay. However, there are ideas you can put into place. Upstairs housing that can be used as AirBNB is one avenue. Opening a boutique hotel is another. Both of those can be costly, and require investors. They are worth pursuing though.
  2. There are communities near you that have overnight stay housing available: Hawarden and Le Mars. What if you worked with them to create an itinerary that includes Akron? Give visitors a reason to stay in the area for two or three days.
  3. Add entrance and exit signage to your community.
  4. Work with the students and the Old Geezer Club to get that workspace used more often.
  5. Use the fact that you are the entrance to Loess Hills for your marketing of the town.

Now look at how you can take small steps to make it happen.


A “Plant Your Flags” party has been scheduled for Monday, October 23 at 7:00 p.m. in the Security National Bank Community Room. It will let those who have ideas to get together, grab a flag, put a thought or idea on it, and let those with a similar interests join together to work towards a common goal.

If this sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is. This is a gathering for folks to come together and share their ideas. It’s not a committee meeting. Note taking and decision making are not suggested. Those who wish together on an idea will do so. This is where the small steps start: gather your crowd.

Perhaps a few folks could reach out to the hotels in surrounding communities and begin talking about places to stay, and offering them possible itineraries that include visiting Akron. This could be done by the Chamber or City, but what if there’s a few folks interested in doing it? Maybe parents whose children attend some classes at the SPA could partner with the volunteers at the community theater.

What if the Old Geezers Club started involving students in their workspace. Could they design some ideas for entrance and exit signs? It starts with just having a conversation about it. What would they want it to look like? Who do they know that could help them? Gather Your Crowd and Build Connections.


  • Mayor Sharon Frerichs and Justin Higman attended a Mayors Conference on the Big Sioux river. Justin is attempting to get all of the mayor’s together from North Sioux to Sioux Falls, and then meet with the Iowa DNR and the SD DNR to set up a meeting on cleaning up their part of the river, and getting/pursuing info on a bike trail.
  • Agreement came through for the tear down of the old auto parts store.
  • Julie Madden covered the visit for the local paper at http://akronhometowner.com/
  • The city is showing the SaveYour.Town webinars for the entire community.
  • Prospective new business owners have been to town to look at possible locations (not at liberty to share their information).
  • The Akron Development Council is looking at investing in a new business – details will be released when the paperwork is completed.
  • Mackenzie Waddell is working with the Opera House to begin the process of historical status and main street store front restoration.

The beauty of Embedded Community Experiences is that it’s a chance for the town to see through my eyes. We hear so often ‘there’s nothing to do here’ that we start to believe it. Now, this small town can no longer say that. There’s many things to do, to be proud of and they are taking small steps to create their own brighter future.

Artisan Pop Up

Every year Sidney, Iowa hosts a rodeo. People come from all over to attend and enjoy SW Iowa. It’s a big deal. Sidney is a pretty small town, about 1,100 people. Professional cowboys come to this rodeo to compete in this four day event. There’s carnival rides, bucking broncos and lots of cowboys!

This year a group of crafters got together and thought “what can we do to give the women who come for this something to do?” They’d heard about pop-ups from us at SaveYour.Town and one of them suggested they do a pop-up for artisans.

So they did it. They found a building that was empty and negotiated to use for the four day event. They came together to put their art and crafts into it, and decided who was going to work the space and when.

It was a smashing success! There was a wide variety of items featured, and people shopped all four days.

Then the artisans thought “what if we did this all the tlEime?” They negotiated the rent on the building, encouraged other artists to participate and provide items for sale. They decided on being open Wednesday through Saturday. JoElla Travis, the rug maker in the group, said “I work a lot of the hours at the pop-up. And why not? I can make my rugs anywhere and I love meeting people!” She doesn’t get paid, yet. Perhaps one day she will, but for now she’s content to be involved in this project.

JoElla also teaches classes on how to make rag rugs. We brought her up to Webster City twice now as an instructor at Legacy Learning Boone River Valley. She’s the lady on the left in this picture.

The story continues to grow. They’ve not started their own blog! Not just a regular website, but a blog. https://popupartisans.wordpress.com/ Now you can follow along and see what events are coming, who’s in the shop and hear their stories.

This is Idea Friendly at it’s best. They gathered their crowd: crafters and artisans who make things. They built connections: found a place to host their pop up, continue to talk to other artisans and online connections. They took small steps: hosted a quick 4 day pop up to see if it worked. They didn’t dilly dally and wait for permission from some official. They saw an opportunity and took it.

Today they continue to build, learn from their mistakes, and grow. We wish them much success!

The future of retail


Photo by Calum MacAulay on Unsplash

McKenzie reports that by 2020 1/3 of the worlds markets will be emerging.

Retail stores will need to be leaner, denser and more in touch with their digital channels. When it’s so easy to shop online, it’s obviously affected the brick and mortar stores. Did you know 44% of those surveyed actually do product research while shopping in the store? They pull out their mobile device and look for lower prices, customer satisfaction ratings, and product reviews. If they can find it somewhere else, for less and with great customer satisfaction ratings, and all else is equal – why would they shop in your store? The answer is – they won’t.

Are you offering an experience? No one HAS to come to you. They can find what they want online or in a big box store in a larger town. What do you offer that would compel someone to come to your store? Your market is no longer your geographic community, they are shopping in other places too. You have to find your customer – they are not looking for you. With the advent of digital marketing, researching online and comparison shopping done easily in the palm of your hand – things have changed. You need to stand out. And you need to shine the spotlight on yourself.

How can you be different? Product lines that no one close carries, specially sourced items, exclusive designer lines are just a few of the items you could offer. What if you changed up your space – I mean really changed it up – and made offerings denser, more attractive and in line with your digital space. That is, if you have one. If you don’t, you’ll be left in the dust.

How’s your customer service? What are you doing that makes people happy when they come in your store? It’s more than just a friendly greeting. Are you offering assistance with decision making? Are you following up after a purchase has been made? Are you using a newsletter to provide customer specials?

Are you taking advantage of the simple things? Is your business listed in Google places? Do you have an active Facebook business page? Are you paying attention to your twitter account and your competitors accounts? Are you blogging and establishing yourself as an expert in your field? Do you collect emails from customers and send them a monthly electronic newsletter?

I hear you say “I don’t have time for that.”

Well guess what, soon enough you’ll have plenty of time – because no one will be shopping your store.

Why pay for a speaker?

I often get asked “why should we pay for you to come? Our mayor (or business owner or local politician) will do it free.” Let me answer that for you.
  • Keynote speakers should be considered an investment in your event and community. They will provide a great experience and your attendees – which should be important to you.
  • Keynote speakers, particularly ones that bring hands on approaches to your particular needs, bring more people to your event. Are you trying to build your chamber? Make the event open to the public and charge more for non-chamber members.
  • With me it’s more than just popping in to give a talk, and leaving. I want to visit your businesses, take lots of pictures, write articles about what I’ve seen and share it with my readers. I talk about possibility and things that work. Those are the stories I’ll pull out of your community. I’ll also promote it on my social media channels (@debworks on twitter, facebook.com/BuildingPossibility, @DebrainIowa on instagram) and continue to talk about it online after the event.
  • If your community responds to the presentation, the postings and the visits – isn’t that worth every penny you invested? I think so.
  • There’s the Jesus Syndrome. There are no experts in your town, you have to travel at least 40 miles before you find one. Remember when Jesus was in his own town, and no one thought he knew what he was talking about? Yeah, that.
Finally – remember, you get what you pay for!

Harvest Tour

6 bloggers came to Franklin County Iowa for the first Harvest Tour. The tour guides took them to the REA Plant and Museum (first farmer owned electricity plant in the United States), the Old Stone House (built in 1854) and Maynes Grove Lodge for some wine and food and mingling on the first day.

Adam Sommer: First time I’ve ever seen chocolate covered soy nuts!

There was a gift bag in each room and the Franklin County Farm Bureau gave each blogger a couple of packages of chocolate covered soy nuts – just a nice treat to warm them up for the bean fields the next day! There was also a pig poop candle from Cornerstone Cottage, two small bottles of wine from TownsEnd Winery, a corn shaped flash drive from Latham Hi Tech Seeds and a few sheets of printed material. A packet of Field Notes notebooks and a painted pumpkin rounded out the gift.

WorkMomTravels: Highlight so far ? The goats that live at our B&B. More fun to come!

Country Heritage is a bed and breakfast on Highway 3 west of Hampton – out in the country. There’s the house, garage, barn and outbuilding with a couple of goats in the fenced off area. I’m told they do a great job of weed eating and talking to kids.

Owly ImagesRuralLifeRadio: Whoa! Check the sign! We’re a Coming Event! Yes!!!

That’s right, the bloggers were a big deal and Hampton was thrilled to have them. In this picture you can also see the Franklin County Courthouse. It sits in the middle of the square and is a beauty to behold. Hampton is a Main Street community and the entire downtown area has been designated by the state on the Historic Register. There are several eating places, the Specialty Shops, Band Shell Park, 100 year old Windsor Theatre and many businesses.

hddbstephen: weather in NH was miserable too, but its been great here – looking forward to tomorrow!

There’s a chill in the air, but the sun is shining and it feels like fall.

Our first stop was the REA Plant and Museum. Larry Meyer from the Historical Society and Fran Buckel from the Rural Electric Coop came and shared the story of the place and some interesting facts and figures about electricity. The kids got to see how things were done before electricity and during the early days of electricity. This building was built in the deep cold of winter 75 years ago and still stands proudly today.

This is a picture of the entire group of bloggers and Jennifer Healy from Franklin County Farm Bureau and me. We were at Maynes Grove located 4 miles south of Hampton in the middle of a huge grove of trees. It’s the diamond in the county conservation park system in Franklin County.

6 bloggers woke up to country fresh air in Franklin County Iowa on their second day of the tour. They came to find out about:

  • how food ends up on their table,
  • rural living and the changes made in the last 100 years,
  • entertainment in a small town, and
  • why someone would want to live here.

The day started at the Franklin County Historical Society with a tour of the museum. Darwin Meyer, board president, showed the bloggers a tile cutter, a threshing machine, a tractor from back in the day, how corn used to be harvested, and many other historical collections housed in the museum. He spoke about the new Admiral Leahy exhibit. William Leahy was born in Hampton and a group of committed citizens have arranged for some of his artifacts from the Navy and a 1/48 replica of a ship named after him to be displayed in the museum.

Shopping was the next item in order. Hampton has 12 Specialty Shops and our bloggers visited many of them. Got You Covered had warm hats for Adam and his family who didn’t quite bring warm enough clothing. Darcy, Liz and I finished our tour at Korner Bakery where we had angel food fingers. Liz called them cotton candy on a stick. Many of the shop owners we stopped at suggested they visit the best bakery in the state! merry bee’s sold some coffee and Orange Possum found new customers who promised to return and spend more time.

Larry, our driver provided to us by ABCM Corporation, drove us to Latham Hi-Tech Seeds where we started with lunch. Pork loin sandwiches made by the Farm Bureau agents with a secret sauce I’ll spend years trying to get from them were served. There was baked beans with apples in them and spicy too, Val Plagge did provide her recipe. Pumpkin cupcakes rounded out dessert and Shannon Latham made those. I mention the food because all of it was made with items farmers grow. It was a great segue into the presentation given by two of the founders of Ag in the Classroom North Central Iowa. These two instructors spend 40 minutes a year in each grade from Kindergarten to 6th grade and share information about how food comes from farms. The kids get to do experiments, learn about crops and animals and have a great time doing so. They visited 25 school districts and talked to over 8000 students last year.

Annette Sweeney, chair of the Agriculture Committee for Iowa, was present also. It was a nice surprise! She spoke briefly on how she’s been farming since 1981 when her dad passed away, the importance of educating the public on what farmers really do, the raw milk debate and welcoming the bloggers. There was a small discussion on getting legislators up to Franklin County so they could see the same thing the bloggers were being shown! Shannon Latham welcomed the bloggers and talked about blogging for Latham Seeds. She began giving a recipe on Friday and her dealers thought she was crazy. As it happens, Fridays have become one of the most read days on their blog www.thefieldposition.com She then introduced her husband John who gave a presentation just what Latham Seeds is and does.

John took the group outside and we got to see what its like inside a seed plant. When the seed is brought in from the fields, Latham Seeds personally inspects each load. That was something John’s grandfather started. If there is a problem, then can find out right away and take care of it right away. We saw three methods they use to clean the seeds. Last year they got a robot that now stacks the bags of seeds on pallets, saving many backs! There were oversized shopping bags — and I mean HUGE bags that could hold 12 of me in them — that held $12,000 worth of seed. The thing that really stuck out for me was the plant was extremely clean. You might think a large plant would be dusty, given they are cleaning dusty crops, but it was not. There is equipment in place to remove the bean dust so the employees are kept from breathing in all that dust.

The afternoon was spent at Roy Arends farm riding in a combine. Roy and Jeanne live just outside of Alexander, Iowa. Roy first talked about the land and the amount of water in the soil. We’ve had a drought this year and very little rain and farmers with different soil fared differently. Roy’s land is well tiled, if not it would be a wetland. This wet subsoil made for a good year this year, despite having no rain. The combine was a huge machine and I don’t believe our bloggers realized the amount of technology farmers really use. The GPS system drives the combine. The header (the part that collects the crop on the front of the combine) can be changed out in 4 minutes. Years ago that would take half a day to change. Roy stressed safety and didn’t allow anyone near the machinery unless he was with them. It was a cold day out in the field, and I think we all developed a lot more respect for these farmers that feed us.

Saturday night provided a hot time in the old town. We ventured into Hampton and enjoyed An Evening Like It Used To Be Part 2 at the historic Windsor Theatre. The show began with a silent film featuring Charlie Chaplin. It was laugh out loud funny! Members of the Hampton Municipal Band played live music directed by Leon Kuehner during the entire evening! It was if we stepped back in time to 1917 and were attending a Vaudeville Show. We were treated to an aria, barbershop quartet, a ventriloquist, a sing along and the Pythian Players who did humorous skits. It was a fun time and the perfect ending to a great day on the Harvest Tour 2012.


Bloggers Tours are a great way to introduce visitors to your town and also create buzz around what they see. This kind of tour is affordable, interactive and the long tail of sharing the stories is worth every penny you invest.


Wrench That Fits

Kickstarter is this site where inventors can raise money to back their projects. It’s a real grassroots kind of thing, and those of us in small towns are very familiar with grass roots fundraising. People will give if it’s a worthwhile project. Lots of things get done when local, small town people put their mind to it. Brad Martin, a 27 year old from Webster City, knew that. He’s a smart kid (sorry Brad, I’m old enough to be your mom) and knew he had a good idea.

He invented this product, The Bottle Grenade – and wanted to raise $2,500 to create his product in his garage. He raised $42,650! It’s a key chain, multi tool, bottle opener, fashion statement. It fits on a key chain, on your belt, in your pocket — it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. You can see a lot more information and video on the Kickstarter site by clicking here.

Brad got some new equipment and created ANOTHER project! It’s called the WTF – the Wrench That Fits. Get this — here’s just a few of the many uses: it’s a wrench that fits 1/4″ to 1/2″, a gear tie, has a pry bar, opens bottles, and is a key chain. But hey – if that’s too small for you — he’s got a LARGE WTF! You’ll just have to check out the Kickstarter page by clicking here.

I’m not here to sell you on this tool. I’m here to talk about Brad. I found him online via Marco Santana from the Des Moines Register. Marco writes about businesses around the state. He let me know about Brad because he knew I was the Webster City chamber director. I spent several days trying to find Brad’s phone number, with no luck. In case you didn’t know it, young adults don’t often have a home phone – they use their cell phone. But I knew I could email him and he’d probably return my email. Which he did – right away. We chatted back and forth and I told him he had to let me see his shop and he invited me over.

Brad works a full time job – he’s ‘in the wind’ (that means he works for the Turbines in Iowa). He was kind enough to invite me over after work one day. Once we got past the niceties, we got down to real business.

He showed me what he had done on Kickstarter to raise funds. He talked about the importance of customer service and talking to each and every customer who helped support him. He talked about dreams and aspirations. He gave me a tour and showed me how his CNC lathing machine worked. He talked to me about living in a small town. He told me there’s lots of guys out there just like him – working on a passion and wanting to make a difference.

I really like the energy, intelligence and passion this young man has. I’m excited to see what magic Brad will bring to our business community.

Oh, by the way — he’s raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter.

Why Toilet Paper?

Buy One Product Local

Greater Franklin County Chamber of Commerce created the Buy One Product Local Campaign. The strategy was to use toilet paper as the product focus for this campaign. Toilet paper was chosen because it is a product that is universally consumed. Toilet paper is also a product that is readily available from a variety of retailers.

The numbers were generated out of research gained from Kimberly Clark and local store numbers.

  • 14,987—number of people in Greater Franklin County
  • 105—average number of rolls used per person each year
  • 1,573,635—estimated total number of rolls used in a year
  • $1,967,043.75—total dollars spent on toilet paper
  • $335,800—total actually spent on toilet paper
  • $1,631,244—lost annual sales

A meeting of the 25 local retailers who sell toilet paper was called. The Chamber emphasized that the Chamber alone could not make this campaign a success. Everyone had to participate and share for it to work. We asked the retail partners to do in-store promotions, talk about it on their Facebook pages, place ads that included toilet paper. The 11 downtown Hampton Specialty Shops created vignettes featuring toilet paper and buying locally as well.

The Buy One Product Local Campaign was announced at the Annual Dinner with full fanfare. Jim Thompson was the keynote speaker and talked about buying locally and supporting your downtown districts. Jim suggested we put the emphasis on making the decision to Buy Local. We don’t want to debate the numbers, we want people to just stop a minute and think about buying local. It is really about creating awareness in our local community to buy local. Access to Jim is a great benefit that the Main Street Iowa organization provides.

Over the


winter, retail stores set up displays, the local radio station KLMJ promoted the Buy Local Campaign, we created bag stuffers and flyers for local stores to use, a traveling banner was created and a new logo was made for this campaign. It was working, people were talking!

Even more exciting was the reaction of local businesses in the community. One local car dealer, BSA Auto, was giving away a years supply of toilet paper with every car purchase. Pam Warwick, a writer from Coulter wrote about it in her weekly article in the paper. The specialty shops were setting up displays of 105 rolls of toilet paper and encouraging people to buy local. KIMT tv station in Mason City came and did a lead off feature about us on the news at 10 pm. Musicians who came to perform at our downtown Tuesday on the Town took pictures with toilet paper and asked the crowds to buy local.

In June we worked again with the 25 local stores and set up a promotion for June 25 to July 8. They set up displays of 105 rolls, posted signage explaining the display and gave bag stuffers out. The Chamber promoted the website on Facebook, twitter and in our enewsletter. The local stores worked with the local paper and radio station and did a big promotion. A Facebook contest to vote on your favorite Fair Float was conducted, Fair Parade float participants threw out rolls of toilet paper and buying locally was highlighted on Tourism Day at the Franklin County Fair. A year’s supply of toilet paper was given out to 5 families. Deb Brown spoke about it at the State of Now Conference in Kansas. The High Plains Journal picked up the story.

The committee decided that a Buy Local Discount Card would be a great thing to offer. They promoted it to local stores and 37 businesses will be on the card. Cards are being sent out to Chamber members and employees – over 2,000 of them.

Why did this campaign work? Because toilet paper is something everyone can relate to. We turned the toilet paper figures into discussion items like providing jobs for family and friends, keeping local stores’ doors open and providing tax dollars for local projects. Asking our community to buy local when purchasing something as basic as toilet paper helped to create awareness of the benefits of buying local not just for toilet paper, but other items as well.

Idea Friendly Workshop

People too closed to new ideas?

Open them up to be Idea Friendly

Gather your crowd, make connections, and take small steps. We’ll show you the research behind it, and the practical steps you can take to put it into action right away.

Live video broadcast Sept 7
Or catch it on-demand until Sept 21