Fairfield - Homegrown Tools

Fairfield, IA

Updated: 2022

After losing Parsons College, the town’s main economic anchor, civic leaders in Fairfield took a risk and sold the campus to an alternative California university—a move that would lead to unique town-gown relations and ultimately play a role in Fairfield’s rich diversity, strong civic infrastructure, and pioneering entrepreneurial networks.

Population2020 10,327
Median Household Income2020$42,862
Poverty Rate 202015.7%
Proximity to Urban Center 120 miles from Des Moines, Iowa
Proximity to Interstate Highway 60 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1989-2006
Municipal Budget FY202314.1 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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Over the past decade Fairfield, located in southeastern Iowa, has become recognized as one of the nation’s most entrepreneurial small towns. Residents refer to the town as the entrepreneurial capital of Iowa or Silicorn Valley. In 2003, the National Center for Small Communities named Fairfield the top entrepreneurial small city in America by awarding it the inaugural Grass Roots Entrepreneurship Award.


Asked how Fairfield overcame the disadvantage of a remote location, the former president of the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association responded, “Easy, you return to your entrepreneurial roots and you focus on establishing entrepreneurial networks and relationships.” This, in essence, has been Fairfield’s strategy. The results include 2,000 new jobs, $250 million in new investment and the creation of a civic infrastructure that rivals that of large cities.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Bring everyone’s talent to the table to address critical community issues. Embracing cultural diversity is a critical step in the process of creating a compelling community vision. The integration of MUM “outsiders” into the cultural fabric of Fairfield has been a long and difficult process. Pervasive cultural divisions must be dealt with if a community is to move forward. Strong leadership is the key to crossing the divide. Referring to Malloy’s leadership, a long-time resident explained, “The boundaries of who’s who in Fairfield are fading away, and I just see this great group of people all moving forward together.”


Build an economy from a community’s existing assets. Fairfield’s priorities are aligned with the practical realities of small-town rural America. Fairfield does not compete on the basis of having the cheapest labor and location. Fairfield took a very broad view of its assets, which include small-town character and work ethic, an entrepreneurial culture, civic amenities that rival those in big cities and a reputation for being entrepreneur-friendly. Fairfield proves that a focus on building from the community’s existing assets is a valid (albeit long-term) strategy.


Community development propagates economic development and vice versa. Traditionally, community development is viewed as the creation of infrastructure (largely by the public sector), and economic development is viewed as the creation of jobs and investment (largely by the private sector). When the two are viewed as having similar ends, synergies can raise a community’s standard of living beyond what would have been possible otherwise. By viewing economic and community development as one and the same, Fairfield has created a cultural infrastructure that helps to retain and energize entrepreneurs. Job opportunities increase and the tax base expands in tandem with the creation of recreational, cultural and civic amenities.


Importance of a small-town champion. In economic development, there is untold value in having a champion or champions who are not shy about tooting the town’s horn. For example, Fairfield is known as having more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. This fact is the result of a quick-and-dirty analysis by Burt Chojnowski, Fairfield’s No. 1 champion. While it is true that plenty of places have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, the idea is to make sure people know what your town has to offer and to use creative communication to hammer home the point. Having a member of the community who is willing to go out and spread the good word about your town can have tremendous impact on the perception of outsiders.


Small-town location as a competitive advantage. The perception, whether warranted or not, is that businesses located in small-town rural locations carry a moral and ethical standard above their urban competitors. Businesses in Fairfield have exploited this perception to their competitive advantage. “We are geographically challenged,” businessman Tim Hawthorne said. “There isn’t a lot of credibility to having a creative advertising agency outside New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Atlanta. However, people perceive Fairfield, with its Midwestern values, as being morally superior to urban areas.” Hawthorne has turned this perception into a competitive advantage.