OTTUMWA — To Suzannah Schindler, there are two basic themes for the upcoming Pathfinders Resource Conservation & Development conference on rural Iowa housing. They sound contradictory.

The first is that communities sometimes get locked into their own approaches and patterns. Schindler said communities develop a form of tunnel vision, inadvertently blocking out ideas from other areas that might apply at home.

Second is the tendency to follow the herd. A new development technique or incentive can become widely popular, leaving communities without a means to distinguish themselves. In those cases, Schindler advocates throwing away the “cookie cutter.”

The solution, she thinks, lies in a broader approach. And next month’s housing conference in Fairfield is designed to give people the opportunity to explore and find ideas that may suit their communities.

“The inspiration for this conference was feedback from communities we work with,” Schindler said. “We’re inviting all of southeast Iowa, about 14 counties. It’s a full-day event.”

Pathfinders expects 50-100 people to attend from communities throughout the region.

Neither of the basic issues, relying on homegrown solutions or keeping tabs on trends in development, are inherently bad, stressed Schindler. The challenge comes when people don’t have the opportunity to hear different voices or see what other communities are doing. Conferences like the one promoted by Pathfinders offer a way to find the seed of an idea, leaving local communities to tweak approaches to match their needs.

Housing has been an ongoing challenge in Ottumwa for years, and that’s without localized issues like the dilapidated housing or failed proposals for development. The reality is that those challenges are widespread.

“Rural Iowa is facing an aging population. That’s true of both the citizens and the housing,” Schindler said. The overall goal of the May 21 conference is to give communities a bigger toolbox to work with as they seek their own solutions.

That’s why she said Bill Menner, the keynote speaker and director of Iowa Rural Development, will touch on issues like the causes of rural Iowa’s housing crisis and look at some of the resources that can help. Other sessions include a focus on zoning and building codes as tools to guide legislative solutions.

Additional information, including a list of speakers and sessions, is available at


Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.