Six months before The National Civic League named Mason City a finalist for the All-America City Award, they asked about our “civic infrastructure.” It’s not a sexy description or hot topic of conversation, but it is the backbone of the success Mason City and North Iowa are achieving.
The progress and positive momentum in our community is largely a by-product of careful and intentional planning. The biggest effort to establish our regional strategic plan, Vision North Iowa, provided the catalyst. This effort drew from the input of key partner organizations and a diverse steering committee representing wide-ranging interests.
The plan identified four primary goals: Building a Regional Community; People, Place & Prosperity; Innovation & Entrepreneurship; and Business Development & Marketing. It also included the strategies and actions necessary to achieve these goals.
This plan was designed to be a living document demonstrating the commitment of the region to improve the lives of all North Iowans. To that end, ongoing meetings and accountability reports ensure all partners live up to the agreed-upon path in the plan. The relationships and collaboration resulting from the planning and implementation of Vision North Iowa may be the most significant byproduct.
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This was on display when regional leadership embarked on an intercity visit to Dubuque to study their “comeback story” and find ideas that could be replicated in our region. During this trip, brainstorming on issues and potential collaboration between the partners was constant, and the regional efforts were bolstered through frank discussion and sharing.
That collaboration has become the norm within our community. At long last, community leaders have come to the understanding that collectively, large challenges can be over-come through partnerships.
The River City Renaissance downtown redevelopment initiative is a perfect example. While the project was an articulated goal for many years, stumbling blocks and delays appeared at every turn.
However, with newfound community partnership the referendum on the project enjoyed more than 70 percent approval and other obstacles have been overcome through honest communication.
Local leaders hold a quick weekly “huddle.” This honest communication is how the daunting goal of building a new arena, hotel, conference center, performing arts pavilion and skywalk are quickly becoming a reality.
Mason City has also prospered due to people taking ownership of projects. Garden clubs have made beautiful improvements; service clubs have improved and created new playgrounds; leadership groups both young and old have implemented new experiences in our downtown; and sports associations have built new facilities and welcomed athletes from the region and state to enjoy tournaments in our community.
These associations are often focused on their specific interests, but their efforts lead to benefits for the entire community: beautification, community pride, economic improvement and higher quality of life.
Our new community mantra to “work the plan” to create positive outcomes requires a commitment to action and modifying the plan as needed. The regional leadership consistently asks, “Are we completing the Vision North Iowa plan?” This constant touchstone creates a regional alignment to the common goals and a cohesive focus to deploy our scarce re-sources for desired outcomes.
The Vision North Iowa plan is tracked online; progress also is reported in newsletters, public meetings and news outlets. What it shows is more than $300 million in new investment, significant job creation, an increase in community pride and remarkable improvement in community development initiatives.
Another point of civic infrastructure is the focus on creating healthier outcomes for citizens. These efforts have been part of a large collaboration to develop new mountain and street bike trails; renewable energy facilities; increase healthy and local food availability; promote walkable neighborhoods; inclusive play areas; a new bike share program; quality affordable downtown housing options; communication on ways to incorporate healthy choices into everyday life; and healthy workplace options.
These efforts are truly grassroots, with a variety of groups taking the lead in various capacities, and the city serving as a resource hub to provide guidance, communication and funding.
Leadership makes all the difference. Strong inclusive, collaborative leadership is apparent throughout the city’s civic infrastructure. Our leaders understand the need for continuous development of the talent pipeline for sustainability and the ability to expand the efforts of the city to address even more difficult challenges. The Chamber, community college, Small Business Development Center, local businesses and school districts focus on leadership development.
We work to “home grow” future leaders through programs such as:
- Youth Investing Energy in Leadership (YIELD).
- Young Professionals.
- Leadership North Iowa.
- The United to Serve Leadership Symposium
Inclusion and diversity continue to be a point of focus for North Iowa as we are a traditionally homogeneous community. However, recent workforce recruiting efforts have led to more diversity within the community.
The North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corporation engaged a local company to recruit workers from Puerto Rico to North Iowa, and this effort has already led to nearly a dozen new families in the area.
Smaller communities throughout the Midwest are witnessing loss in population, businesses, workforce and general disinvestment. We are committed to rolling back that narrative.
The Vision North Iowa plan is ambitious, but, with the broad coalition of organizations and leaders committed to this new chapter, much more success is well within reach.
Bill Schickel is the mayor and Aaron Burnett is the city administrator of Mason City. This guest opinion is adapted from Mason City’s All-America City Award presentation.