ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY
And this corner of rural and underserved Iowa refused to lose out
By Katie Rock
Since Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last year, local governments, businesses, and non-profits have been inundated with information on all the new funding opportunities for projects. Margaret Dwyer and Anne Walton, members and volunteer leaders with the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club group in Fairfield, reached out to their local government to see how it was planning to draw IRA funding to their community. As taxpayers and voters who care about climate change, the timing and scale of the IRA could not be better.
Local officials seemed busy with other issues. So they took it upon themselves to organize an IRA workshop for Fairfield. After months of outreach and planning, the workshop was an overwhelming success! Over 160 people attended from Fairfield, southeast Iowa and across the state.
We sat down with Anne and Margaret to hear more about how their workshop came to fruition.
Q: Why was this workshop important for your community?
As a rural community in a “flyover” state, there are some challenges here that need attention. Our community is full of progressive and visionary thinkers who are all about creating a better future. IRA funding could provide important “jump-start” opportunities for their projects and ideas. The funds could help them deliver “proof of concept” and implement programs that would benefit our whole community. We asked, but did not hear of any plans to put forward this type of information from our local economic development team or city or county elected officials, and it seemed too important a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to allow it to pass us by.
Q: How can someone bring this workshop to their own community?
There’s no easy answer to this! It takes a large venue, available food services, video capability, and plenty of marketing to get the word out, not to mention some dedicated individuals to persist in following leads, comparing options and making it happen. Sooner or later there will be costs involved, so someone will have to handle fundraising, too.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of putting this workshop together?
The hardest part was finding the actual representatives of each relevant state and federal agency that had an understanding of the IRA funds, how to access them, and who the relevant recipient audience for the funds might be. Congresswoman Marianette Miller-Meeks’ office was extremely helpful in this regard, yet it still took us months to connect with each agency, drill down to the regional or state level, and find the appropriate and available person willing to come to Fairfield and speak. There was a lot of back-and-forth emailing, blind alleys, and transfers to other individuals with different job descriptions before we finalized our speaker list.
Q: What was the biggest takeaway from putting this workshop together?
The most important part of this workshop was the afternoon “clinic” session. It allowed individuals to meet face-to-face with a specific agency representative to see if their planned project would pass muster for funding, whether that was the appropriate agency or they needed to approach another one, what the exact next steps would be to move their project forward and who would be their contact for questions and assistance. The clinic let organizations really get into the weeds of their proposed project. Of course, the “clinic” session would have been chaotic and useless had it not been preceded by the presentations from the various agencies in the morning so people could sort themselves into appropriate categories and gain an understanding of the possibilities.
Q: Any plans for what’s next?
We’re still in recovery from that huge effort! However, we’re an impatient bunch, so I’m sure we’ll be tackling another big project soon. We have had potential funders and organizations approach us about repeating this model in other areas of Iowa. We are certainly interested in seeing this happen, although we might better serve in an advisory capacity the next time around.
Margaret Dwyer and Anne Walton, doing an on-camera interview for local TV. They and their team organized a successful IRA workshop for their community when it seemed their local government was overwhelmed with other tasks.