When an old auto parts store was torn down in downtown Akron, Iowa (population 1,588) a few years ago, it left an eyesore of a vacant lot across from the hardware store and Maynard’s supermarket. “People complained about it forever,” says Jennie Roed, the director of Akron’s chamber of commerce and the manager of a family-run pharmacy down the street.
Yet no one ever got around to fixing it—until the Akron and Westfield Community Heart & Soul program came along. For LeAnne Philips, one of the principal organizers, refurbishing Reed Street’s vacant lot was the perfect way to prove that the new Community Heart & Soul program wasn’t all talk. “We wanted something to sort of launch the program that would give us a little bit of publicity and promotion, but also do something positive in the community.”
Like many of its neighbors on Iowa’s western border with South Dakota, Akron and Westfield are tight-knit farming communities. Fields of corn, soybean, cattle, and pork follow the loops of the Big Sioux River. Though many residents commute to work in larger towns like Le Mars, Iowa, and Vermillion, South Dakota, the downtown is surprisingly bustling, even after the pandemic. “The community really embraces a ‘shop local and support the small businesses’ attitude,” says Roed.
Because of that, once Community Heart & Soul volunteers spearheaded the vacant lot makeover, it all came together in just a few weeks. The city of Akron spread gravel and donated long-forgotten planters, which schoolkids from the local 4H club painted and planted with geraniums and petunias. A local lumber yard donated the labor and materials to install a privacy fence that serves as a backdrop for a new seating area. Community members are thrilled at the transformation. “It just was a matter of connecting the right people,” Philips says. That’s why they’ve chosen to call Akron and Westfield’s Heart & Soul program “Stronger Together.” The name is emblazoned on a banner that hangs from the fence in the vacant lot they’ve revamped.
Philips, who grew up in Kansas but moved to her husband’s family farm in Akron in 2007, first learned about Community Heart & Soul in the fall of 2020. Her friend Jennie Roed was looking for a way to maintain momentum in the community once she stepped down from her position with the Chamber of Commerce. They both loved that the Community Heart & Soul program focused on the positive, on “really wanting to take advantage of what our community already has and what we can do to make it better,” says Philips.
The pair invited a core team of ten or so volunteers, including city leaders, representatives of local service organizations, and members of the shared Akron and Westfield school district, to get the ball rolling. Once people looked at the Heart & Soul website and watched some of the videos, enthusiasm caught on quickly. Learning about the new Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant Program in the spring of 2021 sealed the deal. “We were probably going to move ahead with it anyway,” says Philips, “but knowing that we had the seed grant opportunity gave us a little bit more encouragement to do it quickly.”
The Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant Program requirements encouraged Akron to partner with Westfield, the 150-person town ten minutes down the road with whom Akron shares a school district. The population differential—and the fact that the schools are in Akron—can make Westfield residents feel forgotten. A few contentious school bond votes in recent years have heightened the tension. But for Jenny Hartman-Mendoza, a Westfield town council member who Philips asked to join the Community Heart & Soul team, Heart & Soul may be an opportunity for healing. The committee, she says, “have their good ideas for Westfield, and they really want to get us involved in it.”
Hartman-Mendoza loves her little community. The post office. The city hall. The restaurant and bar that attracts patrons from far outside the Westfield community. Philips and Roed love Akron. “It’s a community that gets things done,” Philips says. “People are willing to work together to accomplish things.”
What they’ll accomplish with Community Heart & Soul remains to be seen. As volunteers prepare to collect data on what residents hope to see in their place, no one’s sure what they’ll hear. Ideas for new businesses? A bike trail? By launching Community Heart & Soul with a highly visible change downtown, Philips, Roed, Hartman-Mendoza, and other local leaders hope that residents gain a sense of possibility—and some trust that Community Heart & Soul won’t be just another community visioning project that goes nowhere. (They’ve had a few of those.) By drawing on what people love about their community, they hope to create a forward-thinking plan that empowers residents to make their own incremental changes.
The same June 2021 evening that the Akron City Council approved a resolution in support of Community Heart & Soul, it also leased the vacant lot to Heart & Soul for $1. (If someone wants to develop the lot down the road, they’ll happily give it back.) To Philips, living in a community of people “who are willing to step up, jump in and get a project done, and make things work” underscores that “Stronger Together” was definitely the right name for the Akron and Westfield Community Heart & Soul project.
Want to bring Community Heart & Soul to your town? Apply for a seed grant, which gives resident groups $10,000 to get started. To learn more, go to CommunityHeartandSoul.org/seed-grants.
By: Melody Warnick
Freelance writer Melody Warnick’s book This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are is a practical guide to loving the place where you live that’s been featured in the New York Times, Time magazine, Fast Company, Psychology Today, and others.