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University of Iowa partnership helps small-town Iowa with murals, strategic plans and everything in between

August 29, 2019

Webster City, a city of 8,000 in north-central Iowa, is a community in transition.

In 2011, the Hamilton County city lost its largest employer, the Electrolux washer and dryer manufacturing plant. The city went through an economic downturn. Downtown businesses closed.

And while the community has rebounded, more work remains to be done, its community vitality director, Lindsay Henderson, said.

“We’re still feeling out our identity and carving a new path forward for what development in our community looks like,” she said.

In January 2018, Henderson was fairly new to the position, which focuses on community and economic development. She received an email for a conference call on the Iowa Initiatives for Sustainable Communities, or IISC, a program within the University of Iowa that partners with municipalities across the state on a variety of projects.

“After being on the call  it was clear this was a perfect program for where we were with our community,” Henderson said. “I knew it was a perfect opportunity for us. They encouraged me to apply.”

That spring, Webster City was selected as the IISC’s community partner for 2018-19.

What is the IISC?

Travis Kraus, director of economic development and sustainability in UI’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, said the best way to describe the IISC is “a special partnership between the University of Iowa and a community in Iowa.”

“It’s different from the other types of relationships we have — which might just be we agree to do a project in a community — because it’s much bigger than that,” Kraus said. “It’s typically going to 15 to 20 projects.”

The program began in 2009 in the School of Urban and Regional Planning in UI’s Graduate College, said Nicholas Benson, executive director of the Office of Outreach and Engagement.

“It was originally just focused on graduate students in urban-planning doing real world projects in communities across the state,” Benson said.

In 2012, the program expanded to include students from across campus and disciplines to tackle sustainability and community vitality from more than just an urban planning approach. In 2014, the program moved from the Graduate College to the Office of Outreach and Engagement.

Since its inception, IISC has reached across the state, from the Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Council in the westernmost portion of the state, to Burlington in southeast Iowa and Decorah and Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa. All told, the IISC has partnered with 17 communities or regions in 10 years.

While the IISC has had multiple community partners in a single academic year or partnerships that lasted two academic years, the basic setup is one community for one academic year.

“The goal of the one year is to have a really energy-filled, intensive and comprehensive investment in a community,” Benson said. “But our goal then is not to stop that investment, but have it continue after that year of engagements.”

“As more opportunities arise — even outside of our office — communities are now well-connected with the university. It’s really forming a strong relationship that lasts indefinitely,” Kraus added.

The UI’s IISC was one of the first programs in the United States. There are now more than 30 similar programs across the country, and Kraus and Benson consult with other universities starting their own programs.

How does it work?

Each year, the IISC puts out a request for proposals and works with interested communities, visiting with community leaders and guiding them through the application process.

Using a scoring rubric to evaluate the applications and input from an advisory board made of faculty and past community partners, the community for the following academic year is selected.

Benson and Kraus said they are looking for a number of factors. Among them is whether the community has the leadership capacity to take on the partnership and has demonstrated working with other entities.

“You have to have strong leaders that are proactive and forward-thinking, and that’s a big indicator of whether a community can see some kind of success,” Kraus noted.

The communities also must be interested in doing the kind of projects that will make for a worthwhile partnership.

“What do the project proposals look like?” Kraus said. “Are they going to challenge our students? Are there a wide range of projects? That is important for this type of partnership so we can pool together lots of resources from across campus.”

Once a community partner is selected in the spring, the summer months are spent communicating and determining what projects are viable and which courses on campus can best be paired with the projects.

“We want to match the needs and opportunities (of the communities) with the course objectives so the students are learning and applying the skills that are relevant to the studies,” Kraus said.

Henderson in Webster City described those months as a thrilling time with a lot of communication, with projects being dropped and added.

“It was exciting,” she said. “It was exciting and difficult because there might been a project or two I had hoped would move forward, but it wasn’t feasible. But more projects came to light that were exciting.”

The goal of the communication throughout the summer months is to have the projects ready to begin on the first day of courses in the fall. Then the work begins.

The projects

Henderson said she had no trouble coming up with about 30 project ideas for Webster City. The list to be done through the IISC was winnowed to 20.

Projects included urban and regional planning students working with Henderson to create a strategic plan for downtown Webster City, and working with the parks and recreation department to create a Parks and Recreation Master Plan, Students from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering designed new recreational opportunities on the Boone River as well as an outdoor amphitheater, a wetlands project and a pedestrian bridge over White Fox Creek.

Translations of city documents from English to Spanish were completed by a student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Students from the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center helped a not-for-profit organization find grant opportunities. Art and art history students and faculty created downtown murals and a solar art sculpture. Students and faculty from other UI departments and colleges on campus were involved in projects as well.

“One of the things we ask for in the application is diverse types of projects and projects that are going to challenge students,” Kraus said. “When I say ‘diverse,’ we’re looking for opportunities to match projects with courses from all disciplines on campus. So we end up pulling in 10 to 15 different departments to work on projects. That could be anything from the School of Art and Art History to Planning to Engineering to Law, and we look for the best home for the things that are included in the community’s application.”

Sustainability in the projects can mean social, economic, environmental sustainability or any combination of the three, Kraus said.

“We know increasingly people want more than just a house and a job,” he said. “They want a high quality of life in the places they live. That often includes arts and culture. It often includes recreational opportunities.”

While some of the projects — such as the mural and sculpture — have tangible results when completed, other projects are finished with a report or recommendation. Henderson said Webster City will wait to take action on some of the projects and recommendations until a new city manager is hired.

Who benefits?

While the partner communities end up with new projects that may go on to be completed, the arrangement is a “two-way street,” Benson said.

“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” he said. “It’s not the University of Iowa helping communities. It’s us working together to solve problems. We get a lot out of this, as well. Our students learn a lot, our faculty learn a lot and all of the work that’s happening at the university — whether it’s to educate our students, to do research or to do service — all of it is within the mission of the public good of trying to address challenges and pursue opportunities that will better the lives of Iowans.”

Speaking specifically about students, Kraus said there are many benefits. By working on these projects, students get a real-world application of the skills they’ve developed at the University of Iowa. Benson said students also sharpen their core skills of communication, problem-solving and working through differences.

And unlike with internships, these projects are led by the students, Benson said.

“The students are oftentimes essentially given a problem statement, and they go from beginning to end, figuring out how to solve that problem, the steps to take along the way, project management skills, all of those things,” he said. “This is as close to being out in the real world as a professional working on your own as you’re going to get.”

Kraus said the state of Iowa benefits, too. Students see that there are job opportunities across the state they might not otherwise have known about, and Iowa can showcase itself.

Among the students who have reaped the benefits of the IISC partnerships is Ali Hval, a recent UI graduate with a master’s of fine arts in painting and drawing. Hval began working with the Office of Outreach and Engagement when she did a mural in Clinton in 2016. From there, more partner communities wanted murals, and Hval found herself with increased opportunities.

In Webster City, Hval designed a 12-panel mural that incorporates the city’s history and important citizens.

“It definitely opens up a lot of avenues for me,” she said. “Now, I’m getting commissions here and there for public art, which is something I never thought would happen. This is actually one way where you can make money.”

The cost of working with the IISC is “very little,” Benson said. Partner communities never pay for the actual work done by students, faculty or staff, but do cover the costs of transportation, materials and lodging when necessary.

Kraus said the total costs are calculated by the number and type of projects completed, meaning more projects equals a higher cost to the community. The IISC requires a minimum of 10 projects, so the minimum cost is about $10,000.

Webster City so far has had the most projects done in a single community, which cost the city $17,500.

“They were a wonderful team to work with and very generous,” Benson said. “We couldn’t have been happier with this experience.”

Keokuk will be the 2019-20 academic year partner for the IISC. Communities interested in applying to be the 2020-21 partner must do so by Sept. 1, 2019.

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com


Past Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities partners

• Webster City: 2018-19

• Mason City: 2016-18

• East Central Intergovernmental Association: 2016-18

• Sioux City/SIMPCO: 2014-16

• Winneshiek County: 2014-16

• Iowa City: 2014-16

• Cedar Rapids: 2013-14

• Muscatine: 2013-14

• Washington: 2013-14

• Dubuque: 2011-13

• Oskaloosa: 2010-11

• Burlington: 2010-11

• Decorah: 2009-11

• Charles City: 2010-11

• Columbus Junction: 2009-10

• Wellman: 2009-10

• Anamosa 2009-10


View this article as it originally appeared in The Gazette by Lee Hermiston

Last modified: August 29, 2019

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