Okeh, I finally got around to reading “Denison, Iowa”, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dale Maharidge. The following is a “book report”, a sad substitute for my vision of “the book club at the bar” with David Ludescher.
There are many possible story lines that I could cull and feature from the book. There’s the difference in the rainfall between east and west Iowa and its impact on the regional economies, the spiritual awakening of the Plains Indians that was manifested in the Ghost Dance and culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee, the impact of the opening of a Walmart on family-owned businesses in Denison, the discussion about arts and economic development surrounding the Donna Reed Festival, and, my favorite tangent, the national debate over the tariff between the free market Democrats and protectionist Republicans that was settled by the election of 1892.
In fact, if one were to identify the primary thread or dominant theme in this complex weaving of the many potential story lines in a small town in the midwest, it would most likely be the discrimination that the Latino immigrants faced. However, that’s not the story that I’m going to share in this blog post.
Rather, of greatest interest to me is how a handful of people can make the major decisions for a community and the apparently limited amount of citizen input that is required to validate those decisions as legitimate.
There were three major civic projects that moved from concept to implementation during the period covered by the book. They were the downtown streetscape project, the location and creation of a community center, and the remodeling of Der Denison Herold building.
Denison, a town of about 8,000 in western Iowa, was suffering from a number of familiar woes: the changes in the agricultural economy, the loss of jobs to overseas competitors, and the shifting of purchasing from local retailers to the big boxes. Each of these woes contributed, at least in part, to the visible outcome: increasing business vacancies on main street. To some degree, each one of the three projects was originally intended to strengthen the economic vitality of what they call “Uptown” in Denison.
The Mayor appeared to be the champion of the streetscape plan. It was one of a number of ideas that had come out the process known as the 2020 Executive Committee Plan and he seemed determined to make it happen. At least according to the author of the book, many downtown business owners thought that the money would be better spent on the insides and outsides of downtown buildings or programs providing financial support to existing, expanding or entrepreneurial businesses.
The concept for the community center was a little harder to follow. It started out as a gathering place in downtown, then morphed into a conference center, and finally ended up as a combination banquet facility and golf club. The financial structure was set by the city’s leaders to be $1.5 million in private donations and $1 million in public tax dollars. One downtown booster worked hard to get the community center located in the historic Germania Opera House, for an estimated cost of $500,000. He was swimming against the current, however, the Building Official, in a conversation with the City Administrator, said about the efforts to save another historic building (Der Denison Herold), “If you want my opinion, a bulldozer should have been used on it”.
Although a smaller project, Der Denison Herold is at the center of the discrimination story. The Latino contractor was the low bidder for the construction work. However, a contractor with close ties to the group pushing the conference center golf club offered to do the work on the Herold building for material costs only, thus undercutting the Latino contractor. In another fascinating twist to this tale, the contractor also proposed donating the value of this free labor to the golf club project.
One of the citizens asking the toughest questions about these projects was a local entrepreneur and community booster, Dick Knowles. He started out by running the newspaper and eventually bought it. He came up with a plan to keep more of the agricultural money in the town and raised money to start up the first packing plant in town. He also lured the U. S. Department of Labor to locate Job Corps in Denison.
Dick Knowles accused the Mayor and City Administrator of not being willing to tell the whole story up front and changing things as they went along. According to the book, one city official called Knowles and his supporters “Dickheads”.
The questions that people were asking included who had come up with the cost estimates, where the community center should be located for maximum economic benefit, why the current plans didn’t tie to previous recommendations, and how the operating assumptions for the banquet facility were created. According to the author, the Mayor and City Administrator dismissed the people asking the questions as “negatives” who were against everything.
The streetscape project was undertaken, and only half completed before the city ran out of money. The conference center and golf club were built across the river and four miles away from the downtown. After a guest column in the local newspaper and a quiet call to the federal government (at least according to the book), the Latino contractor finally won the bid for the remodeling of Der Denison Herold building.
When these projects were first conceptualized, Denison had no municipal debt. The community had a pay-as-you-go mentality rooted in the conservative culture. By the time the projects were finished, the town was only about $1 million below its debt cap. If these projects don’t produce the desired economic stimulus, the city has few additional options.
One can certainly admire the efforts of a small group of people trying to make something happen in a cautious, conservative community. If I had gotten the feeling that the majority of citizens supported the decisions of their leaders on these projects, taking the financial risks to pursue them might have seemed right. However, the book left you with a sense that a handful of people were betting with taxpayers’ money on horses that looked to many folks to be lame.
The Mayor and the Council were voted out of office and the City Administrator moved on to bigger and better things.