Denise Becker was born in Wayne County and graduated from Corydon in 1973. Her class graduated around 70 students. In the 90s, classes at Wayne hovered around 50. Today, they average below 40.
Becker spent 18 years as an elementary school teacher, before serving as Wayne Elementary principal for 12 years. She told herself that after she retired she would get a part-time job. When she found out she could also help her community, Becker jumped at the chance.
“You want to see things succeed and do well,” Becker said. “You don’t want to see things dry up.”
Becker took over as director of Wayne County Development Corporation from Doug Mounce. The purpose of the WCDC, a non-profit organization, is to expand economic activity by expanding established businesses and attracting new ones; promoting tourism; and building upon infrastructure, which includes improved housing conditions and rental opportunities in Wayne County.
The WCDC is composed of four counties because of a lack of population individually. There are both county committees and regional committees.
“I’ve been trying to meet with businesses and saying, ‘what can we do for you, what do you see as your needs,’” Becker said. “I’m working with a lady [Susan Cosner] from Iowa Area Development Group trying to attract new businesses and industry. We’re putting up a new website and putting together some daytrip ideas—we’re trying to divide them up. So one of the trips is a history thing. Stay at the Nodyroc, go visit the museum, follow the Mormon Trail and go down to Tharp Cemetery.
“We did one that was like the sweetheart package—you stay at Gypsy Sisters, chocolates and flowers from The Flower Hutch, take a picnic out to the reservoir.
“We have quite a bit of stuff put together, but it’s not promoted quite as much as it needs to be. We’re trying to work on that. Brenda DeVore at the museum has done quite a bit with the Mormon Trail.
“I’m trying to go to Corydon Community Betterment, the Corydon & Allerton Chamber of Commerce. To say, ‘what can we do to work together here and get some things going in Wayne County.”
Becker has only been at her position since Oct. 14.
“I’d really like to get some of those storefronts filled up. There are so many people who say they’d really like to have a coffee shop in Corydon like Grass Roots Café in Humeston. But I don’t know if anyone is brave enough to really give it a start.”
One of the programs Becker would like to promote more is Dream Big Grow Here. This is a regional contest for Wayne and surrounding counties. The top five are invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, and first place receives $5,000, second place, $1,000, third place, $500, and the final two entries, $250. First place goes on to the state competition with the possibility of winning $10,000.
Last year, there were 14 applicants from this region, but none from Wayne County. Becker would like to see that change. She blames a lack of publicity, and plans to get the deadlines out this year.
“Why wouldn’t you want to apply and get yourself a free $5,000?"
Last year, Podium Ink from Mt. Ayr, an existing business, won first place. One of the products Podium Ink designs is vinyl decals for vehicles—they have done work for the people of the hit reality show Duck Dynasty.
Another company did not win the first year they applied, but finished in the top five the next year.
“They probably learned what they needed to do.
“I’ve already contacted the business teachers at the school to say they have to be at least 18-years-old. So if you have a young kid that wants to start a business, maybe that could just be part of their plan—even if they have a [business] class this spring, then maybe they can get involved with that—what a great experience to go out and pitch that to someone.”
There is also a revolving loan fund for start-up or expansion of small businesses in Wayne County, and application packets are available in Becker’s office, Room 202 in the basement of the courthouse. These loans have lower interest rates than bank loans.
“With the revolving loan fund we have, I really want to try and promote that, and say, ‘hey, here’s some opportunity—I know it’s not that much—$5,000 from the revolving loan fund, $5,000 from Dream Big Grow Here—that’s $10,000.
“I think we’re really starting to get some young people in the community that could start to support those kinds of things. And I think the more you get something like that started, the more it brings in. That’s what happened in Humeston. One thing led to another. It started to make a difference. I’m excited about the new Hy-Vee, that’s going to help the town to just grow a little bit.
“I think [our newly installed] fiber optics system is huge and we really need to push on it and that’s what I’ve been trying to work with Susan Cosner on, because she works through the telephone company. She said this was something I really needed Grand River Mutual to be a part of.”
Becker also touts Corydon as a great place to raise kids.
“We’ve got a great school system. We’ve got a good hospital. There are just so many things that we have. It’s a safe place for kids and for families. I just think there needs to be more here for people so they don’t have to go out of town. When you have things like that going, then people will stay here more, rather than going off somewhere else and getting everything. That goes with the entrepreneurship thing—get some small businesses around town, then that’s going to help everything grow.”
The other side of the coin is housing. Some people tell Becker that Wayne County needs businesses first, and then the rest will come. But Becker believes housing is just as important, and part of the upward spiral. Part of Becker’s duties is handling applications for the Chariton Valley Regional Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants or loans up to $7,500 for Wayne County residents in need of house repairs. When combined with the local housing trust fund, which offers $5,000, an applicant could be eligible for up to $12,500 in grant assistance. This is not only an opportunity to help individual families, but also a great opportunity for the county to improve infrastructure. It will help to draw people into Wayne County, and to retain existing residences.
Becker sees much potential for the county to grow again.
“A lot of people from Des Moines are fascinated with this area. Matthew’s [Becker’s son’s] wife is from Des Moines, and she had to go to the theatre. She thought that was kind of neat. They came down and camped out back of our house. She was just amazed by the stars. Just the little things that we take for granted, they think are a bigger deal.
“They are interested in seeing the Amish people, the Old Time Soda Fountain in Allerton, Grass Roots Café and Snyder’s in Humeston—all those little things like that they didn’t even know existed.
“Tourism might seem like a little thing, but if you can bring some people in who really like that small town atmosphere—where people are friendly—if we get more small businesses on the square, then maybe they would be attracted to move here. The more people you get here, the better it’s going to be.”
The WCDC’s website is www.waynecountyiowa.com, which is in the process of being updated. Becker’s office number is 641-872-1536, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.