Fairfield/Jefferson County, Iowa

The city of Fairfield is conscious that it is a small place in a very big world. With just under 10,000 people, it is located more than one hundred miles from the nearest big city, in the rolling farmland of the American Midwest filled with corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs.

Fairfield has the advantages of a small place in a rural setting: natural beauty, plenty of elbow room and a human pace and scale where longtime residents know each other and are quick to offer a helping hand. But city leaders recognized long ago that its future depends on the world around it: specifically, on attracting and retaining people who can build an economy that reaches far beyond its borders.

The city has a record of success in that regard. According to Godaddy’s Venture Forward research project, Fairfield has nearly six times more small businesses per 100 people than the average for US cities. Dubbed “Silicorn Valley” by Wired magazine, the city has the kind of entrepreneurial culture and person-to-person network for which that other valley is famous. It has a diversified economy of education, software development, telecom, financial services, manufacturing and marketing companies, some employing thousands.

From Spiritual to Digital

Fairfield took an unexpected path toward becoming what a state governor called “one of the state’s economic superstars.” In the 1970s, followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who taught the Beatles transcendental meditation) founded a teaching center there. It drew young people by the busload to what would become, decades later, an important educational institution for the city, the Maharishi International University. More spiritually attuned than financially savvy, they soon started running out of money, so they launched their own small businesses, from computer magazines to petroleum brokerages and accounting services. That sparked a culture of entrepreneurship that continues strong. Today, over one-third of the town’s workforce is self-employed and runs one or more small businesses.

When the internet emerged in the 1990s, a few entrepreneurs quickly formed ISPs offering dial-up service. Among them was LISCO. Its founder was a relentless innovator who went on to introduce DSL internet and, with the help of a Federal loan, fiber-based service. Coverage in Fairfield now exceeds 95% and adoption 90% of households. To reach the remaining underserved, the county’s Board of Supervisors used a 2022 Federal grant to contract with Natel Broadband to build a mixed fiber/wireless network into rural areas surrounding Fairfield amd bring a further 2,600 homes high-speed connectivity.

Preparing the Next Generation of Success

Small cities are frequently talent-poor, because lack of local opportunity causes its youth to leave town when they can. Fairfield is determined not to fall into that trap. Its entrepreneurial culture helps. So does Portrait of Graduate, a program that equips students with competencies in communication, leadership, workforce readiness and critical thinking, with work-based learning opportunities, career academics, internships and apprenticeships. Skills instruction ranges from business to welding and healthcare services. The most recent senior class graduated with nearly 600 college credit hours that they could apply to ongoing education.

The Maharishi International University (MIU) has evolved far beyond its origins teaching meditation. MIU offers undergraduate and graduate programs in business administration, media, regenerative agriculture and a range of wellness and consciousness practices. Its computer science program is the fifth largest in the US. Few communities of Fairfield’s size can boast an educational asset of this caliber.

As students leave education, they can take advantage of the Fairfield CoLab, a co-working space that offers access to financial and business development services from local community colleges, banks and private investors. CoLab hosts an annual business pitch event, tech meetups and seminars in business planning. For more established businesses, the Fairfield Economic Development Association has developed the FEDA Business Park, where the first building has been purchased by a motorsports company for a new dealership.

Innovating in Quality of Life

Already possessed with an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Fairfield has taken steps to fill in its inevitable gaps. One of the most basic and yet innovative involves childcare. America has little standardized daycare, leaving working parents to cobble together solutions ranging from grandparents and babysitters to expensive private facilities. Fairfield has opened a new, nonprofit childcare center that will serve 185 children from ages six weeks to 12 years. It is the product of business-government-citizen collaboration, with a hospital donating land, state government providing a US$1.5 million grant and private donations ranging from $300 to $1.25 million, led by Cambridge Investment Research, which is headquartered in Fairfield. The Cambridge Little Achievers Center will ensure that people working in microbusinesses, startups and established companies do not have to choose between family and career.

Fairfield has ploughed its economic success back into creating the social, cultural and recreational amenities that a knowledge economy requires. Unusually for a city of its size, it has developed an Arts & Convention Center featuring a theater, gallery, exposition hall and meeting space. It is transforming an old Armory building into music venue able to seat up to 700. These will not only serve Fairfield’s people but increase its attractiveness throughout the region.

Digital and Solar

The Fairfield Public Library is core to digital inclusion for residents needing help with education, digital access and skills development. In the library and over the phone, it offers afterschool tutoring for students, help with job search and resume writing, digital literacy training and veterans’ assistance with social services and employment. These are supplemented by adult education and digital skills courses from the Indian Hills Community College.

Sustainability is also a major priority for Fairfield’s leadership and people because quality of life is one of the community’s key attractions. The city invests annually in upgrading parks and hiking trails, and it has launched larger restoration efforts for neglected orchards and degraded prairie. The Fairfield Go-Green Plan has driven major growth in solar power not only in Fairfield but across Iowa, with Fairfield companies accounting for hundreds of projects. One company, Ideal Energy, is ranked #1 in the state for contracts. MIU has developed a 1.1 MW solar power plant that combines active tracking – moving solar panels to compensate for weather and the sun’s movements – with vanadium-flow battery storage to form what it believes to be the most advanced solar installation in the nation. It is only one of many organizations taking advantage of Fairfield’s solar cluster to shift some of their energy generation away from the grid and ensure a more sustainable future.

A small place in a big world, Fairfield has leveraged the happy accidents of its history, and the entrepreneurial spirit of residents, businesses and government, to make a point – that “the middle of nowhere” is a myth for places that know what it takes to prosper today and are determined to make it happen.

Population: 15,663

Website: www.visitfairfieldiowa.com | growfairfield.com | www.miu.edu 

Smart21 2023 | 2024