AMES, Iowa — As businesses closed their doors at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a user-friendly, professional online presence became a lifeline for many to stay afloat.

America’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Iowa, which is located in Iowa State University’s Research Park and part of the university’s Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations, responded to businessowners’ needs by developing marketing guides and conducting both in-person and virtual trainings on digital marketing and e-commerce.

Staff also created and delivered a portable photo studio to all 942 communities in Iowa to serve businesses that wanted professional-looking photos as they shifted to online sales.

This ongoing effort to support small businesses and innovators during the pandemic is just one of the reasons the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) recognized ISU with its 2021 Innovation and Economic Prosperity Place award on Tuesday, Nov. 16. It’s the third time in five years that Iowa State has won, receiving the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Innovation award in 2020 and the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Talent award in 2017.

“We are honored that APLU recognizes Iowa State University as a national leader in economic engagement,” said Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen. “I am extremely proud of our faculty and staff who live our land-grant mission every day by responding directly to the needs of Iowans. Their expertise, innovative ideas and personalized solutions help businesses and communities not simply overcome challenges, but emerge stronger and more competitive.”

David Spalding, the Ivy College of Business’s Raisbeck Endowed Dean and Interim Vice President for Economic Development and Industry Engagement, said the award reflects Iowa State’s long-standing tradition of innovation that is engrained in the university culture.

“Iowa State is a leader in helping communities and businesses build their workforce, generate income and investment, enhance the quality of life in their region, and seize opportunities presented by the latest technology and best practices,” Spalding said.

Spalding gave the example of the Rural Business Innovators program, a start-up accelerator that helps rural tech and innovation entrepreneurs develop their business ideas. SBCD designed the program to serve Iowans in communities with less than 20,000 residents, and provide customized counseling, next-step guidance, and exposure to a network of resources in the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

He also pointed to efforts to address an aging housing stock in rural communities across Iowa. The Iowa State University Community and Economic Development (CED) Extension and Outreach unit worked with state partners to create a workshop series that helps rural communities assess their housing needs and develop action plans. Over 100 local leaders from 11 communities have completed the training.

While the program’s development is at an early stage, progress is already happening.

  • Ida Grove, pop. 2,142: Ownership of a large lot was transferred to a developer, substandard housing was demolished, and connections were made with a manufactured housing company. The lot was platted for manufactured housing within a few months of completing the RHRA workshops.
  • Keokuk, pop. 10,780: Separate city and county housing programs have each been modified to create a more streamlined system for accessing housing funds.
  • Creston, pop. 7,834: The city has accessed rental inspections from the county, providing improvement in rental housing quality.
  • Manning, pop. 1,500: The city has annexed land to provide for more housing and created an informational toolbox for homebuilders, providing needed information on land, utilities, financing, and zoning regulations.

“ISU is not confined to Ames. We work across all 99 counties to serve Iowans and support innovation. It’s in our DNA,” Spalding said.