#ThisIsFortDodge: Iowa’s Best Kept Secret
Fort Dodge is the kind of place where you, your father, and your father-in-law can be inducted into the high school’s Hall of Fame, where your high school crush turns out to be your college bank teller, who turns out to be who you end up marrying, where you move for a great job thinking you’ll only stay a few years but make a permanent life for yourself and your family.
“It’s the spirit of Fort Dodge that prepares people for the world,” said Julie Thorson, who grew up in the city. “It reminds me of a story from a recent Fort Dodge Hall of Fame inductee about redwoods; they’re massive, but they have small roots—they’re just 10 feet long. The roots of the redwood are like Fort Dodge, modest in size yet so strong and able to hold up so much. You plant roots in Fort Dodge, and they’ll support your growth, and your family’s growth, wherever that may take you.”
Thorson moved out of state for college, but returned to her roots to raise her own family like her father and father-in-law did before her. All three have been inducted into the Fort Dodge Senior High Hall of Fame—they were all athletes, she said proudly—and she hopes her children raise their children in the city to enjoy its many benefits, including the Thorsons’ extensive extended family. Chances are good for Thorson, and here’s why:
1. A thriving, supportive community
Fort Dodge is made up of about 25,000 people and surrounded by a greater area of 160,000 folks, but when you visit you’ll notice everyone still pretty much knows each other. You can’t get out of the grocery store without saying “hello” to at least a few people, and they’ll always be there to help you with things, like jimmying open your car window when you’ve left your keys inside, which is how one Fort Dodge native met her husband.
“I don’t think you’ll find a more welcoming place where people will support and encourage you, want to help you grow, where you can pick up the phone and call anyone and ask them about an idea,” said Thorson. “One of the secrets to Fort Dodge is that it’s all there at your fingertips if you’re willing to make the effort.”
Thorson speaks from personal experience. She has forged a special partnership between Friendship Haven, a retirement community where she serves as President and CEO, and the Trinity Regional Medical Center, the local hospital, which is the envy of her peers in the health care industry. The relationship includes working together in a special pilot program run through the Affordable Care Act and in personal service and access for the center’s members.
“In a community like Fort Dodge, we all know each other, so I have personal relationships with people at the hospital, and we all take things so personally because we’re taking care of our former teachers and parents’ best friends,” said Thorson. “I don’t consider Fort Dodge to be a place where I work to live; it’s where I live to work. When I think about our retirement community, it’s not just business, it’s our life.”
2. Loads of Outdoor Activities
Fort Dodge is home to more total park acres than any other place in the state, boasting 10,000 acres at 32 different parks, which offer everything from breathtaking bike and horse trails to an abundance of waterways for fishing, boating, and kayaking. They include 70 miles of hiking trails, 25 miles of hard-surfaced biking trails, and 65 miles of water trails frequented by canoeists, kayakers, and tubers alike across Bushy Creek, Kennedy Creek and Lake, Des Moines River, and Dolliver Park, to name only a few.
The city also offers the largest OHV Park in the state, with 50 miles of off-road trails in its 800 acre Gypsum City OHV Park, and the Community Orchard grows along the Des Moines River Valley, possessing about 5,000 trees, including approximately 15 varieties of apple trees fresh for picking.
3. Friendly, Competitive Passion for Sports
Sports are a big part of the culture at Fort Dodge, a place where many professional athletes were raised, including several major league ball players and a long-distance runner who competed in the 2012 London Olympics.
The city provides plenty of venues in which to play, including the Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex, which features baseball and softball fields and ten soccer fields, in addition to hosting the annual Iowa Girls’ State Softball Tournament for over 40 years. Fort Dodge also has golf courses, basketball courts, tennis courts, and a skateboard park.
“My kids are heavy into sports—they love them so much, especially soccer. My older boy, his dream job is to be a professional soccer player,” said T.J. Pingel, who talked about the immense growth of the Fort Dodge Soccer Association since his days as a kid. In fact, in the spirit of the expansion, Pingel recently persuaded his next-door neighbor to sell her home to him for a modest $8,000 so that he could turn the place into a soccer field for his kids and the neighborhood.
Fort Dodge is home to everything from historical destinations such as the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, the Fort Museum, (a recreation of a 19th-century military outpost) , and designated as an Iowa Great Place in 2010. There’s also the extremely popular Rosedale Rapids Aquatic Center, the
Oleson Park Splashpad Park, and Fort Frenzy, an amusement park with an indoor car track and roller skating rink, arcade games, miniature golf, and more.
“There’s really no shortage of things to do. Every weekend, there’s something. Actually, next week, we’re going to see the Steve Miller Band,” said Rick Lamoureux, who runs a garden center for Smitty’s Lawn & Landscape.
Fort Dodge also hosts a slew of annual events for the community, including its Badger Lake Dragon Boat Bash, a massive specialty boat race; Fort Dodge Fireworks & Concert; Shellabration, the city’s biggest, oldest event, which takes place every summer; and Frontier Days and Frontier Days Parade, a celebration of Fort Dodge’s history at the fort, its namesake.
5. A Boom in New Developments
Fort Dodge has seen an explosion in construction, growing a phenomenal 71 percent since 2004 to include 22 acres of homes near Williams Drive, a strip mall on –Kenyon Road, and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new facilities and plants by Cargill, CJ Bio America, Valero, Koch Nitrogen, Nestle Purina, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc., Calcium Products, and more.
6. An Abundance of Job Opportunities
Fort Dodge’s business-friendly environment has attracted international corporations such as Cargill, Nestle Purina, CJ Bio America, and Koch Nitrogen, encouraged the expansion of its already large ethanol plants and car dealerships, and propelled the growth of its long-standing mining industry, particularly the mining of limestone and gypsum. The gypsum industry history begins in Fort Dodge with George Ringland as the individual whose patent for the improvement of plaster contributed to the growth of the gypsum industry and was founder of U.S. Gypsum Company. The Ringland-Smeltzer home is located in the historic Oak Hill District and is on the National Register of Historical Homes along with several other homes. Because of Fort Dodge’s location and tax climate, it’s also a major regional hub for the manufacturing, transportation, retail, and health care industries. Located by a four lane highway, regional airport and two connected competing railroads makes the area a transportation dream for products and services.
“The job market is amazing. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, which is actually making it hard for me to find candidates for the dealership,” said Pingel, general sales manager at Shimkat Motor Company. “We’re just watching Fort Dodge grow and grow, and we were pretty recession-proof to begin with,” he said.
The unemployment rate is only 4 percent.
Fort Dodge serves as a regional medical hub, helping 160,000 people across eight counties over a 70-mile radius. The setup affords people the benefits of a slower-paced, tighter community but also the excellent medical care of many major cities.
“I think we’re really, really fortunate. When we bring physicians into the hospital, they’re always amazed. They think they’re going to a tiny hospital in the middle of a cornfield, but our facility is beautiful, and we have cardiology, pulmonology, neurology — there’s no shortage of specialties. We have access to really fantastic health care,” said Shannon McQuillen, vice president of People Excellent at UnityPoint Health.
Fort Dodge leads the way in patient-centered care, with one of only 23 Medicare Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations in the nation. In addition, the city now has a brand-new, state-of-the-art dental facility, Clay & Associates, which launched in February.
“It’s a privilege for me to work on the people here, build this new practice, bring in more dentists, and give back to the community,” said Dr. John Clay, who started working in Fort Dodge more than 10 years ago. “The people here are just fantastic,” he said.
8. Low Cost of Living
The cost of living in Fort Dodge is 17.6 percent less than the Iowa average and 21.8 percent less than the national average, reports UnityPoint Health–Trinity. In addition, the average sale price for homes is just $71,950 compared to the national average of $273,500.
9. Good Location
Fort Dodge serves as Iowa’s northwest central retail hub and includes Crossroads Mall, a slew of specialty shops, national chains such as Kohl’s and Marshalls, discount stores, eclectic gift and antique shops, and other stores catering to outdoor and athletic enthusiasts.
“We have a lot of communities around us, so there’s a perfect mix of having everything you need be accessible to you, all those modern conveniences, while still keeping that small community feel, where people genuinely care for each other,” said McQuillen, who left Fort Dodge 20 years ago only to return for what she thought would be a short stint in her career at UnityPoint Health. She and her family have been in the city almost 11 years now, and they never plan on leaving.
Fort Dodge also remains a less-than-90-minute drive from Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and biggest city, which is ranked #1 for its up-and-coming downtown area, #1 for economic strength, and #4 for top amusement parks in the nation, reports Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance
10. Great Schools
Iowa has the highest high school graduation rate in the nation at an impressive 88 percent. Even more impressive, however, is Fort Dodge’s whopping 91 percent high school graduation rate, with 80 percent of its students attending college.
The public school system has 4,700 students enrolled in grades K-12, with 1,200 students attending the city’s private schools, including St. Edmond, St. Paul Lutheran, Harvest Baptist, and Community Christian.
Fort Dodge also has two colleges: Iowa Central Community College, which offers two-year college transfer programs for its over 6,000 students, and Buena Vista University, a four-year institution with a satellite location in Fort Dodge, which teaches accounting, entrepreneurship, management, computer sciences, psychology, and more.
The city is also 45 miles from Iowa State University, 85 miles from Drake University, 90 miles from the University of Northern Iowa, and 150 miles from the University of Iowa.
Fort Dodge’s crime rate index has dropped more than 150 points since 2002, edging toward some the lowest crime numbers for any city in the nation, according to city-data.com.
“I went to school at Creighton University, so I lived in Omaha, and while I was there, every day someone was shot to death. My house was broken into twice, and my car was broken into once. By the time I graduated college, I thought, there’s no place like home,” said Pingel.
He moved back to Fort Dodge in September ‘09, and six months later, when he went to make his first student loan payment at Wells Fargo, his loan officer turned out to be his high school crush. He met up with her a short while later at the city’s fort for Frontier Days, and four years and three kids later, the rest is history.
“Fort Dodge is the best place to live,” he said. “It’s made all my dreams come true.”