Ben Winchester

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Ben has been working both in and for small towns across the Midwest for over 20 years. He is trained as a Rural Sociologist and works as a Senior Research Fellow for the University of Minnesota Extension, Center for Community Vitality and conducts research on topics surrounding a theme of “rewriting the rural narrative” that are vital to rural America.

Rural Is Not Dead

It seems the rural story has already been told. Small towns keep getting smaller.  Churches, schools, clinics, businesses, and now post offices, have closed their doors as the lucky few migrate out to the big cities. This deficit framework dominates how we discuss and envision our rural communities. However, the story of rural America since 1970 is rich and diverse, with positive trends occurring under the radar. Learn how these important positive changes have been occurring across the rural landscape that require us to rewrite the narrative of rural community change.

Deb Brown

Deb grew up on a farm outside of Geneva, Iowa, population 141. Her first entrepreneurial venture was raising a hog. You’d find her either with her nose in a history book or out exploring abandoned houses and buildings. Funny, things haven’t changed much, she’s still working on filling empty buildings in small towns. Find her at 

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Innovative Rural Business Models

Rural business people are trying a variety of different business models today, including pop-ups, shared buildings, businesses inside of other businesses and more. Entrepreneurs are using these smaller-scale experiments and tests to learn what works before making a huge investment.

Learn smaller-scale business models being used right now in small towns.


Sarah Thompson

Sarah has worked in three separate Main Street communities as a Tourism and Events Coordinator as well as a director. She currently holds the position of Executive Director of the only regional Main Street program in Iowa. She works with four communities in this role; all of them under 1,500 people. She is a committed economic developer and enthusiastic preservationist.

Grow Your Downtown and Create A Regional Garden of Economic Development

How many of us have watched our downtowns dwindle and thought "Someone should do something?" But "who?" It could be you and others just like who! Learn how to create a group of volunteers to get things done and then get the town next door to work with you to create a destination for tourism or a thriving Economic Development base.

J.A.D.E. Panel

3 of JADE BoardJADE is an Iowa non-profit, tax-exempt Corporation founded for the purposes of community betterment.  They primarily work to improve the Jewell community through sponsored events and projects for community betterment.

How did this one group of committed citizens in a small town create funding resources to save their town? What does it take to bring in new businesses? Was it worth it? All questions this panel will address.

Joe Jennison, Director of the Mt. Vernon/Lisbon  Community Group who put together the day in Mt. Vernon. Joe was dressed as Elvis as he welcomed the RAGBRAI riders to "Get Funky in Mt. Vernon". He has his photo taken with (left to R) Carolyn Altman, of GA, Rejina Allen, of NC, and Cindy Allmond, of NC. The are with team Trunk Monkeys. RAGBRAI riders enjoy Mt. Vernon.  des.m0727ragbraiDay6 - July 27, 2012 - CEDAR RAPIDS TO ANAMOSA. (Andrea Melendez/The Register)

Elvis. That's Joe.

Joe Jennison

Joe Jennison is the Director of Main Street and Marketing for the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group. A Second City-trained playwright and performer, Jennison is passionate about volunteer recruitment and retention, festivals and promotions and downtown development. He speaks regularly to groups about his community, its accomplishments and his 503 registered volunteers.

Creating Events Out of Nothing

Joe is an expert at creating events that everyone wants to come to, and participate in. We all know how difficult it is to host events and wonder how many people will come for them. Joe will share his secrets for finding volunteers and finding events that people want to be a part of.

Abigail Huff

Abby Huff has 10 years of experience with interior design, historic preservation, and community involvement and development. She has her A.S. in Interior Design from Kirkwood Community College, a B.A. in Interior Design from University of Northern Iowa and received her M.F.A in Historic Preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia in 2015. She currently works for Hobart Historic Restoration in Cedar Rapids as their Preservation and Incentives Specialist.


How to write a National Register Nomination for your rural buildings

Listing your historic rural buildings on the National Register of Historic Places is the first step in saving your building using Historic Tax Credits and other grants. In this session you will learn a quick overview on the nomination process and how to get started.  You will also gain knowledge on what qualifies as a historic building and how utilizing them is key to your rural success.  Abby specializes in working with State, Federal and local communities and programs to facilitate and leverage full use of incentives supporting community development and revitalization.

Economic Development Panel

Small towns are different than cities! It's simply doesn't work to have someone come to town with a city template and try to make it work in your town. Join us for this exciting panel discussion.

Derek Lumsden from Jones County


Featured Artists on

Art as Economic Development Panel

Jennifer Drinkwater

Jennifer Drinkwater

A Mississippi native, Jennifer Drinkwater is an assistant professor with a joint appointment between the department of art and visual culture and Iowa State University extension and outreach. She has a B.A. in both studio art and anthropology from Tulane University and earned an M.F.A in painting from East Carolina University. Her paintings have been exhibited nationally in juried and group shows, and she has had solo exhibitions in venues all over the United States. Her personal work and teaching often explore how we bring artwork from the studio into the world, and accordingly, how this work can both build and shape community. During the past few years, she has partnered with communities in Iowa and Mississippi in various community art projects, programming and theatre productions. She helped to organize a community-wide steamroll printmaking event in Perry, Iowa, created installations in restored prairies in Nebraska, collaborated on public art projects in vacant sites on Iowa main streets, spearheaded a community knit-bombing project, and painted two murals with middle school children on a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta.

Maureen Seamonds

Maureen Seamonds

Mo is an Artist/Entrepreneur. She holds the MFA in Ceramics and Sculpture and operates the Produce Station Pottery. She has founded two companies and taught Art at Iowa State, Drake University, and Iowa Central Community College where she was Art Department Coordinator. She has worked with many community partnerships to create opportunities for students and has been active with the Legacy Learning Boone River Valley organization. She creates public sculpture and has shown her work professionally throughout the region.

Kenn Outzen

Kenn Outzen

Kenn has always had an interest in art, just not the time he needed to pursue it. Life took over, he had a heart attack and started building bird houses for his yard. He's had his birdhouses in a store front that eventually sold, at farmers markets that were too hard to travel to, at stores on consignment and they closed. Finally his birdhouses came home. He builds birdhouses and replica houses for his 'hobby that went wild' and is having success working from home.