BY ART CULLEN
Storm Lake is the most interesting small city we can imagine. Certainly in the Midwest. Mainly because of our diversity, where more than 80% of the youngest students are children of color — most of them from families who come from the four corners of Earth. Throw in a small university with a large endowment, the best farmland in the world, a burgeoning resort and a glacier lake and you have a recipe for fantastic success. That’s how we look at 2017. We’re on the cusp of a good wave.
Population is growing. That’s an anomaly for rural Iowa. We will begin to see more housing, from upscale at Sunset Bay to market-rate at South School to low-income at 10th Street, this year. Single-family lots will be at the ready for new construction. Plenty of incentives are in place. Wages are rising. Storm Lake is doing everything it can and, it would appear, all the right things to make real strides in housing growth this year. Tyson Foods is telling the city council that more workers will move to The City Beautiful if they could find housing here. It is happening and can be sustained on a growing wage base. Because of it, schools are bursting at the seams. Supt. Carl Turner is leading a task force to plan a new early childhood education complex that could relieve space problems at the elementary and middle schools, as well.
The city council will have an opportunity to hire a new manager. City Manager Jim Patrick says he will retire this spring and move to Montana. This is a chance for the city to regroup and recommit to government that is transparent and responsive. It presents an opportunity to look at the city’s financial structure from bottom to top and see how it can be redirected to support the public’s priorities. We will need a city manager who can get interests rowing together again. It’s a great opportunity.
We have a community to market, although we have been painfully shy about it. We have a public safety department second to none. It is the safest place in the world to live. You can walk by the lake in the shank of the evening or fish it without a care. We should be telling the world about it. But we have been scaling back those efforts. If we don’t fully support our public safety and public works departments, we won’t have the same community to sell.
This should be the year that we regain our footing with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources after a couple years of flubbing dredge operations. Storm Lake is nothing without a healthy lake, obviously. This community will continue to demand at every level that we try to continue restoring that lake to some semblance of the state it was in when the white man found it. We are confident that dredge operations will be on goal next season with better oversight. Also, this year IDNR and scientists it hired from Omaha will seek direction on further clarifying the lake by building a break wall off Chautauqua Park and testing aluminum sulfate treatments. Those treatments could establish vegetation that could restore aquatic diversity to the lake. Our responsibility is to keep an open mind and respect real fears of the unknown. We think the idea has the potential to transform the lake into something better than any of us could imagine. This will be a key year to determine whether it happens.
2017 will be a watershed year for watersheds. The entire political structure is fixed on water quality like we have never seen. This is because of the Des Moines Water works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties seeking regulation of effluents from drainage systems into the Raccoon River. The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard this summer in federal court at Sioux City. Legislators say water quality is their priority this session. It is impossible to predict where any of it leads. But we do know that farmers and landowners will continue, acre by acre, to take more care in how they manage the land. We are refining how we manage the corn-soy complex, and this year could define how we move forward.
Along the lake lies nestled this lovely and tenacious small university that is hanging on through the toughest times. Buena Vista University will invest a new president this year. Again, a great opportunity presents itself to a leader who realizes the potential in Storm Lake. Small colleges from Beloit, Wis., to upstate New York are rethinking their relationship with community in fundamental ways to stabilize enrollment and invigorate the colleges. Some are investing their endowments in community betterment in Rust Belt towns. Buena Vista is looking at new populations in new ways. Invest in a first-generation college student, for example, and you create long generational chains of loyalty and support. Invest in graduates who would like to start their own businesses in the region. A new leader will recognize that there is nothing wrong with Buena Vista as an academic institution. He or she will be someone who can think about Buena Vista and its place in new ways.
Tyson is expanding its facilities and buying property near its two plants. Rembrandt Foods is always looking for ways to expand and innovate. Smaller manufacturers say they can’t find enough welders and fabricators. Lake Avenue storefronts are full of family-owned enterprises — Mexican bakeries, a health food store, boutiques and cafés, clothiers and candy makers. Our unemployment rate is at 3%. St. Mary’s School is as healthy as it has been in decades. These are great days in Storm Lake, Iowa. It’s up to each of us to lift our community in every way we can and support every good idea to grow. These days, if you aren’t moving forward you are moving backward. Storm Lake has always had its sights fixed on moving forward.