New Iowa State initiative to support small rural businesses

Iowa State University is leading a new initiative to support Iowa’s independent retailers and revitalize rural downtowns.

This fall, approximately 75 students in the colleges of human sciences and design will help rural businesses with makeovers and consultations as part of the Iowa Retail Initiative.

“This project addresses important aspects of the College of Human Sciences’ mission – community, entrepreneurship, and family,” said Linda Niehm, a director of the initiative and associate professor in apparel, events, and hospitality management. “Many of these businesses are family-owned, in communities that aren’t strongly connected to resources. We want to fill that gap.”

The initiative will unite existing campus services and provide a single point of contact for rural communities and retailers seeking help. It is financed by a $250,000 Strategic Initiatives Grant from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“Iowa State offers so many resources, but it can be hard for businesses to locate the support they need,” said Jessica Hurst, a co-director of the initiative and assistant professor in apparel, events, and hospitality management.

The initiative aims to strengthen connections between extension and outreach, the College of Human Sciences, the College of Design, the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, the Iowa Small Business Development Centers, and business support organizations like Main Street Iowa and chambers of commerce.

Holistic solutions to Main Street challenges

Since 2004, College of Human Sciences students and faculty members have led “makeover marathons” for small businesses in more than 30 Iowa communities. Niehm said the initiative will take the college’s outreach to the next level.

“Our college has experience in visual merchandising, retail management, and branding, but we have our limitations,” Niehm said. “We’re not designers. Bringing in other areas of expertise, like design and landscape architecture, will make our efforts richer and more complete.”

Ron Prescott, a program coordinator in Community and Economic Development Extension and Outreach, is forming a grassroots committee of retailers and trade centers as part of the Iowa Retail Initiative. He’s working to assess their needs so Iowa State can develop effective services, ranging from storefront renovation to visual merchandising to social media coaching.

“If your merchandising layout is poor, no one will buy your products,” said Susan Erickson, a program coordinator in the Institute for Design Research and Outreach who emphasized the importance of taking a holistic approach.

“If your facade isn’t inviting and accessible, people won’t enter your store,” she said. “If retailers aren’t connected to a downtown shopping district, people won’t come to your community. There are so many layers we need to address.”

Tom Neppl, a College of Design lecturer in landscape architecture, said he’s excited about building new partnerships to serve small businesses.

“When the College of Design is invited to help with streetscapes and veneers, we don’t understand the total context – budget constraints, staffing, the community picture, the human element,” Neppl said. “This project is more unified. We’ll be able to provide more meaningful help to businesses and towns.”

Win-win for students, retailers, communities


The initiative is funded through summer 2015, and the team is working to build relationships on and off campus. In late June, the Iowa Retail Initiative Summit brought together 19 faculty and staff members in extension, design, human sciences, economics, and a variety of other fields. Participants discussed gaps and common interests in retail-related work at Iowa State.

“This collaborative project is a win-win for students, retailers, and communities,” Niehm said. “Students will be learning from business owners and our faculty, and will be exposed to all these new resources. It’ll be a much richer experience.”

Over the next two years, the team will help more businesses, engage more students, and continually evaluate and refine the initiative’s offerings.

Niehm also said the initiative will make Iowa State’s business outreach efforts more equitable. Retailers from Iowa’s smallest, most underserved rural communities will now have better access to university expertise.

“Broadly defined, retail is so much more than stores,” Niehm said. “It’s also hotels, restaurants, farmers markets, and entertainment venues. When you look at the potential businesses we can serve in Iowa, it’s a very high number.”


Students, faculty members revitalize Iowa’s Main Streets


Linda Niehm, associate professor, Iowa State University Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management, 515-294-1930, niehmlin@iastate.edu

Jessica Hurst, assistant professor, Iowa State University Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management, 515-294-5284, hurstj@iastate.edu

Ron Prescott, program coordinator, Iowa State University Community and Economic Development Extension and Outreach, 515-294-5862, rprescot@iastate.edu

Susan Erickson, program coordinator, Iowa State University Institute for Design Research and Outreach, 515-294-1790, susaneri@iastate.edu

Tom Neppl, lecturer, Iowa State University Department of Landscape Architecture, 515-294-5676, tomneppl@iastate.edu

Lisa Bates, lecturer, Iowa State University Department of Interior Design, 515-294-2528, lmbates@iastate.edu

Sarah Burke, graduate assistant, Iowa State University College of Human Sciences, 515-294-9424, hswriter@iastate.edu