“One of our biggest challenges is that approximately 75% of our workers drive outside of town to their jobs. Many go to nearby Cedar Rapids, which is the largest manufacturing center in the state of Iowa,” John Nieland, Mayor of Marion, IA (population 26,294) told me when I was in town as the keynote speaker for their annual Chamber of Commerce Banquet. I was impressed with his plans to improve the community, ultimately resulting in keeping more of those commuters at home.
Marion is focused upon commercial and light industrial development. They also have an interesting brownfield redevelopment on the east edge of their downtown that could significantly improve an already impressive downtown. One of the award winners at the banquet was Dan and Sandy Rosenberger who did a wonderful renovation on an old dry cleaners building creating Hearthstone Gifts in the downtown. The new city hall (built with a special 1% sales tax for one year) and library, built 10 years ago, are wonderful anchors for the historic downtown area.
City Council Member Craig Adamson talked about the impact of the redevelopment project on the town, “Dubuque started 30 years ago with an idea of what they wanted to do with their riverfront. Now they are the talk of the state. We have a similar opportunity to shape the vision of our town for the next 30 years.” Dubuque is a wonderful example of what can happen with a shared vision and the cooperation of a number of committed citizens.
Marion has three programs that should be copied by other towns. They do a bi-annual survey of their citizens to get their opinion on everything from the city’s identity to recreational options, quality of city services, neighborhood concerns and capital improvement priorities. They have a 40%+ response rate and have tracked the results back ten years. The mayor also has a Student Advisory Committee composed of 20 students from grades six through twelve. In addition, each city department has a Citizen Initiatives Performance Assessment with a citizen board giving feedback on how they are doing.
Marion is going to continue growing just like a lot of towns. But, Marion is doing more than what I typically see, trying to determine how they are going to grow and in what way. I was impressed with how they are going about developing their vision of what they want to be.