Pride, perseverance, progress

BY ART CULLEN

As 2016 closes we recall the wisdom that President Obama repeats so often, drawing on Martin Luther King: The march of progress is a long, and you celebrate your victories where you can. As this historic figure walks off the stage, it is interesting to us, at least, to look through that prism on Storm Lake and Iowa.

Two important topics dominated this space over the past 12 months: immigration, and the tension between agriculture and the environment. Progress can be seen with both.

Young Latinos showed up at the presidential candidate appearances. They asked if they would be deported. Some candidates said yes into the face of young courage. There was all sorts of slander heaped upon these young folks ginned up by dishonest campaigns. It was surely a low point in modern civic life. But these young Dreamers didn’t go hide. They stood up. And a lot of people stood up with them in Storm Lake. Sara Huddleston ran as a proud Latina for the Iowa House and lost by double digits, but she won Storm Lake where her friends turned out. Local authorities responded with compassion and tried to assure them that they are welcome here. Their reaction has helped to make President-elect Trump to reconsider his campaign pledge to deport every single undocumented immigrant, we would like to think. That’s progress. It’s not freedom, but it’s a step back from shackles and detention.

A real, constructive debate has taken shape in Iowa over agriculture’s contributions to water quality problems. Interests that could never before admit any sort of stewardship issue now acknowledge it. They have to. The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties cannot be wished away. Farmers and landowners are exploring cover crops, grass strips and wetland treatments like they have not before. The commodity groups are not denying sound science anymore. The debate is over who pays for the pollution, not whether it even exists. That’s progress. When less than 1% of BV County’s agland is planted to cover crops and when people are still plowing into drainage ditches, we know that we have a long way to go. But it will be a topic in the legislature this year. The Raccoon River Watershed Authority, although we are skeptical of it, is an expression of state and regional concern. Storm Lake has taken on millions upon millions of storm sewer treatment to protect the lake and the Raccoon. We are putting our money where our mouth is. That’s progress.

Of course there were many other signs of progress.

This was a news story published just last week: $139,000 was raised by the hard work of 91-year-old Bob Ohrlund to buy a Steinway Grand Piano for the Storm Lake High School Auditorium, which was completed this year. Voters approved of $19 million in renovations to the school, and then rallied around to make sure it had that touch of class with a Steinway. That’s real pride in Storm Lake by average people digging deep and betting on the future — even when they’re 91. That’s progress.

Alta and Aurelia are getting along great in school. Laurens-Marathon and Pocahontas Area school boards are still communicating with each other over the painful work of whole-grade sharing. Test scores are improving in Storm Lake along with graduation rates. Buena Vista University is hanging in there in an absolutely brutal environment for small, private liberal arts colleges. BVU is welcoming many of those first-generation college students who are the children of immigrants, through which it might find a new enrollment stream. That’s progress.

Despite dredging snafus, the lake is gorgeous. The Department of Natural Resources will firm up the islands starting next summer. Dredging is set for next summer. Water clarity is the best it has been since the white man first arrived. Anyone who saw the lake 20 years ago knows: That’s progress.

King’s Pointe Resort made an operating profit. Tyson made a multi-million-dollar expansion of its chilling facilities at the pork plant. The food company digested its Hillshire Brands purchase and reported solid growth to the bottom line. Lake Avenue’s storefronts are full and appear busy. For Storm Lake, that’s progress.

Thanks to good work by city administration, we are starting to see a ramp-up in housing units. Sunset Bay is back on the burner, South School will become apartments, new low-income apartments were announced and the city opened new developments. Our housing shortage remains, but there has been real progress.

Pay is inching up for workers. More hours are being worked. The Buena Vista County unemployment rate that not so long ago hovered near 5% is now down to 3%. That’s progress you can bank.

We have crime. We have short-sighted politicians. We have bigotry and sexism. We worry that our new neighbors remain safe in their new homeland. We did not fix our gun problem. Water quality could be better in the river and the lake.

But we saw a lot of pride, perseverance and patience this year in Storm Lake, Iowa, that built progress. If you focus just on that, just on our little corner of the world, and for a moment not think about all the noise out there, you can see how far we came in just a year. We’re getting there inch by inch, year after year.