Sunday, February 6, 2011

How One Man Changed Rural America

By Bill Burch
  Rural communities are drowning. Children are leaving never to return. Their historical town squares are falling in and burning only to be replaced with gravel parking lots. A majority of those with great ability and opportunity chase opportunity, opportunity they don't see in their rural hometown community.
  Centerville, Iowa was no different. What happened? Due to the marketing efforts made on behalf of our multiple businesses I've received more attention in regard to our community's turn around than I deserve. Let me share the real reason Centerville, Iowa and Appanoose County are turning around.
  First there was a lot of groundwork by multiple small groups of people at different times. The foundation was set by a truly entrepreneurial group a half century ago. They did what it took to capture a federal project now known as Rathbun Lake. When the lake went in the torch was handed off and for 30 years a small group worked on the establishment of a resort on Rathbun Lake. Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun opened in 2009.
  There was also a group who pioneered the town square restoration project on what is Iowa's and possibly the country's largest county seat town square. There are many other groups who played their part. It is interesting to me to notice how most things of true value were organized by small gorilla like ad hoc groups who, with an entrepreneurial spirit, saw a need and went after it.
  All these things happened in Centerville and Appanoose County to create a foundation for something unprecedented and unheard of. This is where the attention needs to be directed.
  In 1996 a local boy who was born in Appanoose County 64 years earlier took an interest in his home community. Those great leaders who truly impact the world for decades, if not centuries, all do things the same way. But the way they do things is often exactly opposite of how the rest of the world, including rural communities like ours, do things. What is it that they do? They inspire. They first know the heart of why, then they work on the how of their dream and then the what of the details.
  Most the rest of us start with what then how and finally why. That is another story altogether.
  In Appanoose County our world changed in 1996. We just didn't know it was changing yet. It was that year when that local boy took an interest and slowly started to unleash his attention on an unsuspecting and tired rural town. Now it is 15 years later. Our world has certainly changed. This is a short story about how entrepreneurship, volunteerism and philanthropy combined to start a fire of success in the deepest of rural areas in our United States.
  It was the last graduating class in a dying coal mining town in Exline, Iowa. The 16 year old valedictorian of the class came from a famously poor family. Picture a child in nothing but shorts, bareback on a pony, carrying a cane pole headed to the pond to fish and you have an accurate picture of this young man. This same boy, in the bitter cold of a pre-dawn winter morning, while milking the family cow thought to himself, "I've got to do something to get out of this. I don't want this life." Did he ever.
  Now it is 1996 and this barefoot, pole fishing, cow milking kid had become one of America's elite. Most don't know his name but people around the world know his work. Zig Ziglar is famous for saying you will get what you want if you help enough other people get what they want. So it was in this story. Think about the people that know about and want such things as Ben Gay, Unisom, Lipitor and most famously, Viagra and you know his work. This rough shod country boy went on to found what is now arguably the world's largest pharmaceutical advertising agency. Now he was sharing not only his wealth but his knowledge with his rural community. That is where I came in.
  The character we're discussing is Morgan Cline and now it is 1997 and he is ready to open his first business venture in Centerville. Originally built in 1866 and rebuilt after a fire in 1892 The Continental had been restored to its original grandeur. The opening was approaching and the business was in need of a manager. I was that manager and by accepting that position I unwittingly climbed into the most thrilling roller coaster of a ride. And much like a roller coaster a great deal of attention gets paid to the person riding it but people lose track of those that invented, invested, and operated the ride in the first place.
Morgan E. Cline
  Ultimately the mission was to save two towns - Centerville and Exline - and in turn, help the entire county wide community. We'll talk more about this in other places but for now it is important that everyone recognize the true horsepower behind Centerville's, Exline's, and Appanoose County's turn around…Morgan Cline.
  As you would expect there are those who don't understand and could even be described as resenting the effort. They are a common statistic. There is also the large group who fit somewhere in an area that we might call "bewildered but appreciative". Finally there is another small group likely the same size as the resentful backward group. This last group would be made up of those with the vision and wisdom to recognize and partner in Mr. Cline's dream and with the willingness to help it happen.
  Almost every one of the nearly 30 projects Mr. Cline is responsible for had a local leader or leadership group attached to it. Cline provided vision and the money. The locals provided the additional ingredients that made it happen. Cline was the Chef with the base ingredients, the rest of us happily play the role of seasoning. He has been the flour and chocolate chips we've been the baking soda and vanilla.
  While there are many stories to be had from this, the mission here is to revisit the real reason for a community's rebirth. Yes committees, organizations and individuals over decades of time have had immeasurable impact on the community but no single person has had the impact of Morgan Cline. I may get a great deal of attention but it is his work, his interest and his giving that is at the heart of it all. I'm lucky. Morgan Cline is generous, interested and committed.
  How does this relate to you? It could be you. To most, what has happened to my home community seems like luck, magic or a combination of the two. The secrets that make what you see seem like magic are only camouflaged. They are there. I can guarantee that every community has what it takes. What I can't guarantee is if your community has the heart or the level of "want to".
  Appanoose County is seeing the tide turn. More college graduates are returning home. More alumni are returning home to spend retirement with friends. More people who have never been here before are retiring here from other parts of the country. This is just the beginning for us.
About the Author:  Bill Burch is the President of Morgan E. Cline Companies and the founder of Commercial Resources, Inc. More information can be found at;;; and or doing a Google search for Morgan Cline, Bill Burch or Centerville, Iowa. E-mail can be sent to
  The editor sincerely appreciates Bill Burch's permission to republish the above article in The Jerome Journal.  The photograph of Morgan Cline is linked from Morgan E. Cline from Exline Iowa to the Big Apple.

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