Many articles have come out in praise of Fairfield, Iowa. Two and a half years ago, Rox Laird, The Des Moines Register’s editorial columnist, published an Opinion piece, Fairfield defines community action, on the city’s civic collaboration and Maharishi University’s Sustainable Living Center. The Smithsonian named Fairfield 7th out of 20 best small towns to visit that year. BuzzFeed named Fairfield one of the coolest small towns in America. And The Iowan had published an article on how Fairfield thinks inclusively creating rural success in Iowa.
I like to think the positive outcome of this latest article on Fairfield, TM and MUM, by Kevin Hardy in The Des Moines Register and the USA TODAY NETWORK, resulted from a phone call I received on my birthday.
In April, I went to visit my son Nathanael at his new home in the Santa Barbara Riviera. For lunch he took me to The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, a well-known outdoor restaurant on the beach by the ocean. While waiting for our food to arrive, an unknown number called my cellphone. It was Kevin Hardy. He told me he covered business, labor and the economy for the Des Moines Register, and was researching why some towns in Iowa were thriving while many were losing population and failing economically. Then he said something that surprised me.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Fairfield was Iowa’s fastest-growing city among cities of a similar size. Kevin wanted to know what role I thought Maharishi University of Management had played in the demographic and economic growth of Fairfield.
In addition to some of the longtime established businesses, I gave him an historical overview how hundreds of meditators came from all over the US and Canada after MIU had moved to town from the mid-1970s onwards. Many would stay and relocate their businesses or start new ones. Also told him about today’s younger entrepreneurs, the new successful ventures they started, and gave him a list of people and companies to visit and interview.
Kevin Hardy and Register photographer/videographer Zach Boyden-Holmes really did their homework. They put together an impressive article that became a national success story! It is reproduced here with permission. See the full article with 14 photos taken May 9, 2016 by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register. I added links for more information.
Why this Iowa town is thriving when so many aren’t
By Kevin Hardy, June 1, 2016
Click here or on the image below to see a short video of Fairfield entrepreneurs. (1:20)
Fairfield out-performed all of the state’s 15 micropolitan areas in terms of population growth between 2010 and 2015.
FAIRFIELD, Ia. – Take a walk around this town’s bustling square and you’ll see an array of businesses that would rival some shopping malls.
On one corner sits a coffee shop that roasts its own beans in house. Down the block is a store specializing in sustainable children’s clothing and toys. Along another strip, there’s a women’s boutique, a Verizon store and a nutrition company.
The town’s retail center also is home to a salon, a consignment store, a furniture store and an art gallery. Just off the square is a pet spa, a natural remedy store and a photography studio. And for those looking for a bite to eat: a Thai restaurant, an Indian cafe, an Italian spot and a joint peddling pizza and steak.
In fact, local officials count only one vacancy in the storefronts that line shady Central Park. It’s just one more sign of success in this town of 9,500 in a state where most small cities and rural areas are seeing residents leave.
Since 1969, census data show Iowa’s metropolitan areas have gained nearly a half million people, while smaller cities and rural places have lost more than 171,000 residents.
But Fairfield has prospered, particularly in recent years. Between 2010 and 2015, the city saw a 4 percent population gain – a rate that rivaled the growth of some of Iowa’s much larger metro areas.
This southeast Iowa city is known as a magnet for practitioners of Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi University of Management, who flocked here since the 1970’s. Fairfield was able to capitalize on that unique niche, building a surprisingly metropolitan quality of life.
While Fairfield is home to 1,000 fewer jobs than it had 15 years ago, state figures show employers have rebounded in the last five years, adding nearly 700 jobs between 2010 and 2015. During that time, Fairfield went from 714 employers to 751, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
“We have a great quality-of-life culture and an entrepreneurial culture,” said Mayor Ed Malloy. “And we see it is allowing more young people to put down roots in this community.”
Around town, there is no shortage of small-city staples like Casey’s General Store and Pizza Ranch, though Fairfield is better known for its funky coffee houses, shops and restaurants. Locals claim the city is home to more restaurants per capita than San Francisco.
Yet the place that Oprah Winfrey dubbed “America’s most unusual town” is more than just quirky. It’s one of the few nonmetropolitan areas in Iowa posting strong population growth, according to U.S. Census figures. And around town, evidence abounds that Fairfield has done what so many small cities in the Midwest struggle to achieve: attract and retain people.
Troy Van Beek stands in front of a solar power array his company Ideal Energy installed at the Maharishi University in Fairfield Monday, May 9, 2016. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
TM’s long effect
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation, or TM, in India in the 1950’s.
But he brought his technique and “Consciousness-Based education” to Iowa in 1974, when Maharishi International University moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., to the 1 million empty square feet vacated by Parsons College in Fairfield. (The university later changed its name to Maharishi University of Management.)
While some in the community resisted the influx of meditators, locals say most of those tensions were alleviated years ago.
“As time has gone on, everybody’s meshed seamlessly,” said local designer Linda Pettit.
Pettit, who with her husband owns Finishing Touch interior design, has watched Fairfield thrive over the last 32 years from her storefront on the town square. She ticks off quality-of-life improvements such as a new pool and new recreation center.
She boasts about the many restaurants. And she tells of all the new and unusual businesses that have opened.
“We have a very vibrant community,” she said. “I think a lot of small towns don’t have the diversity that we do.”
Pettit hears about layoffs at plants in nearby Ottumwa. She knows how Iowa farmers are struggling with low commodity prices. But she said that isn’t Fairfield’s storyline.
Her business works on residential and commercial projects. But she’s noticed a slant toward more commercial projects in recent years, as new businesses pop up and old ones invest in upgrades.
“It’s a great place to have a business,” she said.
Iowa’s ‘Silicorn Valley’
Over the years, many TM practitioners and others who visited Fairfield decided to stay.
Once here, they had to find a way to make a living. Some Fairfield residents drive to Ottumwa or Iowa City for work. But many have started small businesses in Fairfield, which has been called “Silicorn Valley” for its mixture of tech startups and entrepreneurial ventures.
“People moved here and they had to figure out how to stay here,” said David Navarrete, spokesman for Sky Factory.
The 38-employee company was founded in 2002 by Bill Witherspoon, an artist who moved to Fairfield for its TM community. A serial entrepreneur, he formed Sky Factory as a means of supporting his family. It creates window and ceiling panels that recreate outdoor views like those of a blue sky or a beachfront.
Sky Factory’s biggest clients are health care providers, as research shows even a simulated view of the outdoors can boost moods for those trapped indoors.
“I think there’s definitely an entrepreneurial spirit here, and I think a lot of that comes from the university,” said Witherspoon’s son, Skye Witherspoon, now the company’s CEO.
Fairfield is also home to a surprising array of manufacturing.
Creative Edge makes intricate flooring for some of the world’s best known hotels, casinos, hospitals and universities. Bovard Studios makes and restores stained glass windows for churches across the country. And a host of businesses manufacture agricultural parts, iron castings, polyethylene piping and laundromat washers and dryers.
So many things are made in Fairfield that the Iowa Economic Development Authority will host an export conference here in the fall.
Fairfield’s biggest employers have grown in recent years, too.
Cambridge Investment Research now employs about 700 and boasts more than $70 billion in assets under its management.
Like many small cities, some employers in Fairfield report trouble recruiting and hiring, especially with Iowa’s unemployment rate remaining below 4 percent.
Lori Schaefer-Wheaton, president of the 170-employee Agri-Industrial Plastics, said hiring is a struggle. She has 20 openings, a number that has held fairly constant over the last two years, she said.
Fairfield is an anomaly among small cities in Iowa, she said, but she thinks recent population growth is largely related to the university.
“That kind of population growth might show up on our census,” she said. “But I don’t think it changes the dynamics of the workforce in our town.”
Iowa State University Economist Dave Swenson said Fairfield definitely out performs many similarly sized cities. But some signals are mixed: While some measures show recent job growth, other data actually point to employment losses, he said.
“They seem to be demonstrating both demographic and economic growth that stands out,” he said. “The big question is this a short term growth or is it sustainable?”
Natives return home
Meghan Dowd came to Fairfield as a child when her parents migrated here for the TM community.
She moved away for college, then ended up working in television in California.
From there, she visited her mom in Fairfield and realized it was going through a “renaissance,” with monthly art walks, a new events center and lots of cool coffee shops and restaurants. She moved back in 2009 and started Shaktea, a maker of kombucha, a trendy fermented drink.
In Fairfield, she says she can do just about anything she could in a metro city. Plus, it’s much cheaper to buy a home or start a business. (She also started Cado, an organic avocado-based ice cream, featured with a photo in the article and video.)
Her children attend a Waldorf-inspired preschool. And after yearning for a yoga studio, she just opened her own.
“A lot of people moved here, the kids grew up here, but then the kids wanted to go out into the world and experience different things,” Dowd said. “I think that happened and some of that is kind of boomeranging back to Fairfield.”
Jesse Narducci followed a similar path. He returned home to Fairfield a few years ago after living in Colorado and California for more than a decade. He opened Jefferson County Ciderworks just outside of town. He brews hard apple cider and runs a taproom featuring hard-to-find craft brews.
Narducci said many of Iowa’s smaller towns are undesirable places to live because they lack quality places to grab a meal or a drink out. Not Fairfield.
“You don’t have to drive to Iowa City to have a good ale or a good meal,” he said. “I don’t really leave that often. … I’m trying to create my own little paradise out here.”