Hosting diverse populations helps Storm Lake thrive
Jenifer Xiong (center) walks with the Hmong delegation to the Storm Lake Parade of Nations on July 4. The Parade of Nations is an annual tradition in the city’s Star Spangled Spectacular, showcasing the diversity of Storm Lake. (Dolores Cullen / The Storm Lake Times)
An examination of rural school districts in all directions will show that Storm Lake – a northwest Iowa town in Buena Vista County with a population of between 10,000 and 15,000 – is in a very different position from its counterparts. Each district surrounding Storm Lake has a hyphenated name, indicating which districts have merged.
With many of them facing long-term trends in stable or declining enrollment – a sign that a community is shrinking – the Storm Lake Community School District is jam-packed.
Over the past decade, the district has welcomed an average of 15 to 20 new students each year. Last school year, the district had 140 new students. Current enrollments are around 2,600 in all schools, about 400 more than 10 years ago.
“We were shocked,” recalls Superintendent Stacey Cole. “We think Tyson (Foods, which has a facility in the city) must have opened up new positions. We didn’t know they were going to do it.
When the alternative is decline – which has forced other rural districts to lay off staff or close schools – that’s a good problem to have, she said.
In a state that touts “fields of opportunity,” Storm Lake has attracted people of all colors and creeds.
An El Salvadorian who came to Storm Lake via Los Angeles was attracted to Tyson 20 years ago, when his name was still IBP.
“Back then there were few Latinos” in Storm Lake, said Emilia Marroquin, who now serves migrant workers on farms and factories in northwest Iowa. “The community welcomed us warmly.
Her family was drawn to the same reason they stay – a good job in a safe place to raise families at a reasonable cost of living. They liked it after leaving California, where her husband worked three times to make ends meet.
“On those big places with (dairy) cows, guess who (milking them)? Latinos, ”she said. “(We) are the ones who run the factories, do the work. It has been like this for years. “
Of the many farms and factories she visits in the area, she couldn’t find a working non-Latino.
“They have to understand, these people are making your economies stable in your counties,” Marroquin said. “Diversity is something that will enrich communities.
Attitudes in some surrounding communities contrast with what she sees in Storm Lake. With the environment established in Storm Lake and a stable source of income for families thanks to Tyson, she said a better life is within the reach of immigrants.
This knowledge has been a beacon for families who come from far and wide to join loved ones in Storm Lake, building on its economic momentum. But this growth was not purely accidental.
“Once (the immigrant population grew) people came here because they can find work and they know Storm Lake is an accepting city,” Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porsch said. “They also know they won’t be the only person in town who isn’t white. Now we have people coming to the community because they want to be here.
Porsch, in his fourth year as mayor, has lived his entire life in Storm Lake.
“I saw the whole range,” he said. “I like the way we went.”
From a town where everyone looked like him in high school to a community where every child at one of his son’s birthday parties was of a different ethnicity, people of color have added a new dimension to life. in the city.
“The birthday party looked like the United Nations,” Porsch recalled.
He theorizes that the opening began in the 1970s, when Laotian refugees were settled in Storm Lake as part of a program run by the government of the day. Robert Ray.
Cole, Marroquin and Porsch all said that without its embrace of diversity, Storm Lake would be in decline like other rural towns in the state.
“I’m a big believer in the fact that if you want to grow and create industry and jobs, your workforce will have to come from a diverse population,” Porsch said. “The (native) workers are not here.
Tyson, Storm Lake’s largest employer with 2,400 workers, had 200 open positions in June.
Immigrants “are hard workers. It’s a great job and lifestyle for where they’re from, ”said Porsch.
And more and more immigrants are taking risks as entrepreneurs, opening successful businesses on Lake Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.
But in Storm Lake, the benefits are more than dollars and cents. Many say the Buena Vista County Crucible just makes them better together.
“I never felt the freedom to be me until I moved here,” said Di Daniels, co-founder of SALUD, a nonprofit that advances equity for the diverse residents of Storm. Lake by responding to the health and well-being of the community and by encouraging leadership that reflects the diversity of the city.
Hailing from Orange City, the conservative county seat of Sioux, she watched Storm Lake from afar. As other cities struggled to adapt to growing Latin American populations, it intrigued her that the change did not send Storm Lake into a tailspin.
“I saw the writing on the wall – the Latin American community is moving forward,” she recalls.
She says she is hesitant to use the word “community” due to the integration of Storm Lake’s diverse populations into the life of the city as a whole.
“Everyone benefits” from diversity, said Superintendent Cole. “When I can sit at a table and have lunch with people whose experiences at home are vastly different from mine, I can broaden my own perspectives exponentially. “
Children who grow up there will be prepared for the next stage in their lives by discovering new experiences, Cole said.
“I’ve learned that it’s so important for me to talk to people who live differently from me,” Cole said. “Otherwise, I’m so ignorant that people have different points of view. Selfishly, it’s important to be around people who don’t like you because it makes you better.
All is not perfect, of course.
The school district will soon have a new building to help alleviate congestion in its chronically overcrowded schools. But by the time construction is complete, the college will have 250 overcapacity students, forcing the decision to transfer fifth graders to primary school.
School officials first voted on a proposal for a much larger building with a correspondingly larger tax increase. After the first ballot measure failed, the district received voter approval for a smaller building that will not meet expected needs by the time it is completed.
The building will be “a third of the size we actually need,” Cole said.
In a city where officials say the actual population significantly exceeds the U.S. Census Bureau’s tally, opening the door to missed funding avenues, urgent demand for infrastructure continues to challenge city leaders. Porsch predicts that the 2021 census will underestimate Storm Lake’s population by about 20%.
For years, city administrators have emphasized the use of infrastructure which they say proves there are over 10,000 people living in Storm Lake. After the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, leaders’ concerns about an accurate and updated count persisted.
“Housing is a struggle,” Porsch said of the shortage of affordable housing in Storm Lake – a need that has squeezed many rural areas, but perhaps most pronounced in a city where the population has skyrocketed.
“But, we have probably had more housing to move up in the last five years than in the previous 10 to 15 years,” he said.
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A Mexican delegation dances in the Storm Lake Parade of Nations on July 4. Unlike many rural towns in Iowa, Storm Lake is growing, with an increasingly diverse population. (Dana Larsen / Storm Lake Pilot Stand)
A Storm Lake resident walks in the city’s annual Parade of Nations on July 4 this year. The city’s annual Star Spangled Spectacular tradition showcases the city’s diversity. (Dana Larsen / Storm Lake Pilot Stand)