Denison, Iowa

DenisonIowa.jpgOkeh, 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.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    Yes, back to Iowa and the moral of the story from the book and Ross’ original post.

    My take: the need to continually foster citizen engagement in governance-related issues can’t be left to government institutions. Once you’re elected or hired by government, citizen engagement more often than not seems to add to your workload and make your job more difficult.

    So there’s a natural disincentive on the part of public officials to increase/improve the quality of citizen engagement. It has to come from local non-profits, local media, local educational institutions, or other sources.

    What organizations in the Northfield area have ‘citizen engagement’ in public affairs as part of their mission statement? LWV? NCO? Public library?

    October 15, 2007
  2. kiffi summa said:

    Sorry, Griff I hear what you’re saying but I don’t buy it. The ONLY reason that city hall is even there is that a bunch of people decided that there were enough of them to form a city government,rather than trying to do everything by committee, themselves.
    Since I rather like the image, I’ll say it again …City Halls do not spring up, unbidden, from cornfields.
    The ONLY reason for their existence, and the jobs of the staffs who work in them, is to provide in an organized way, the services that the citizens of that unit of govt have decided they require, or desire.
    That is in no way meant to demean the value of the work those staffers do.
    Done well it is the most practical delivery of necessary functions to/for the public good; done poorly, or without sufficient public involvement, it makes a mockery of a system of elected representatives, together with professional staff who implement the policy decisions of those who are elected.
    The incentive to keep the controls in the hands of the people, must come from those people/citizens …not from other institutions.
    I know from watching John Wayne movies when I was young; it’s much easier to control that team of horses if you keep a firm grip on the reins, than to try to regain control after they’ve bolted and “run wild”.

    October 16, 2007
  3. Anne Bretts said:

    Kiffi, I agree with your point that any kind of public employees can work together so well that over time they tend to see the public as a nuisance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
    Griff, I agree with you. The strongest communities I’ve seen have a mayor who works closely with the Chamber of Commerce, School District and usually the Rotary or Lions or other civic groups. They create a strong network for discussing issues and giving input to the council and the groups follow up after decisions are made. There usually is some kind of “Forward Northfield” or “Northfield 2010” or some other catchy name given to the group to create solidarity. The city staff takes its direction from the community discussion and leadership.
    I don’t mean to be cruel, but the mayor here seems to be focused on his own business concerns and is invisible when it comes to broader leadership issues. Decisions seem to be made or proposed in a vacuum. The pool, the liquor store, the library, city hall, safety center all have been discussed as separate “crises” instead of part of a long-term building strategy.
    And where has the mayor been in the heroin discussion? He has a task force on drugs, yet he hasn’t taken any public leadership role, especially since the chief went on leave. The chief’s loss shouldn’t have been a crisis. The fact that a department head was leading on this instead of the mayor and council shows the need for the elected officials to do their jobs and represent the public.
    It seems the mayor — and the council — need to step up to the plate and lead. If they do, the staff will have the direction needed to keep them from “running wild.”

    October 16, 2007
  4. kiffi summa said:

    Anne: I did not make the point that you credit to me; Griff did in his previous post. I do not believe it is reasonable to have employees of the city in an adversarial position with the citizens, ever.
    IMHO,I think you’re wrong in your understanding of the dynamics at city hall, between mayor, council, and city administrator.
    Have you viewed the 7.23 07. city council tape, or happened to have seen that meeting on cable or in person? There is no venue for functionality existing in that room at that time. Now admittedly, I may be putting too much blame on a specific situation, because of having watched too much of the background dynamics, for months.
    You cannot put the blame for all this solely in one place, but you can name the number one problem, I think …personality and turf power struggles.

    It’s far from clear; what do you make of it when a resident goes to the podium and says he has been trying to get questions answered on bidding of city contracts, letting of those contracts, fulfilling of those contracts and he has gotten no answers. The mayor asks the city administrator, and he says the questions have been answered , in full. The mayor then asks the resident if that is so. The resident says he is in total disagreement with the city administrator’s statement. What happens then, in the context of a council meeting? Does the mayor say , “Someone is not speaking factually; we need to come to some conclusion here, after several of these public challenges.” I guess if I was Mayor (large laughter here) I would say to the city Administrator, “We are right next to your office. Would you consider getting copies of your letters answering this citizens claims, and bringing them to the chamber. ” If I had confidence in my staff, that would not be embarrassing them; it would be clearing them of the accusation.
    That did NOT happen; all accusations, on both sides , stand… and the public continues to wonder.
    As long as the council has taken sides, as strongly as they did at that 7.23 meeting, there is no way for the mayor to act with either support , or clarity.

    The citizens are the losers; the dynamics appear to be a lot like those in Denison, IA, to me.

    October 16, 2007
  5. Anne Bretts said:

    Kiffi, I understand the dynamics, but I’m confused by your example. Is your point that the mayor failed to do his job by failing to ask for the documentation? And exactly how did the council take sides?
    Please clarify.

    October 16, 2007
  6. kiffi summa said:

    The example of last night’s meeting was not that the mayor did NOT do his job ; he went farther most would have in asking his staff to respond, so I think he was doing his job. Could he have gone farther? the issue is still unclear as to who is accurate, the citizen or the city administrator.

    I can’t explain again the whole taking of sides from my viewpoint; it’s in a lot of other posts, and very obvious in the council meeting I cited. Watch it and see what you think…

    October 16, 2007
  7. kiffi summa said:

    Here’s an update from the folks in Denison, Iowa as to the current events in their city:
    They are having a council discussion of whether to dismiss their city administrator, because he has too little/no city money to work with, and therefor, cannot accomplish anything. Obviously his salary would also be saved.
    Why no money? It is alleged that the city overspent on large projects during the previous administration. One such project had unfulfilled pledges and in-kind donations resulting in the city having to take larger loans, bonds than initially projected, as well as the committed TIF. That facility, a city owned convention center, seems to have many of the problems our NCRC had( no functional operations budget established at the initial phase) and now the convention center is becoming more of a drag on city finances, as it cannot sustain its operations and debt.
    Another large project in Denison, was their downtown streetscape project, the 3rd phase of which has not been able to be completed, because of lack of city funds.
    These large building projects, which are not financially sound in their conception, are great for resumes, and bad for city finances, IMHO.

    November 1, 2007
  8. Christine Stanton said:

    One of the things in this book that stood out to me was how the writer saw the repercussions of history still reverberating years later. These were not he financial repercussions Kiffi refers to above but the personal ones that affect relationships. One historical reference he uses is the persecution of German Americans in the community during WWII. It would be very interesting to study Northfield and its history from this sort of perspective.

    November 1, 2007
  9. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    Reviewing the various posts on this topic (the book on Dennison, IA), I see that Northfield City Administrator Al Roder’s name pops up now and again.

    As we all know, the functioning of city govt relies to a large extent on the skills of the city administrator. Jerry Anderson, a former mayor, has expressed that in a letter to editor in Saturday paper. He goes so far as to suggest that Roder resign. What does anybody make of that?

    November 5, 2007
  10. John George said:

    Stephanie- Re #59, I reckon Jerry Anderson has as much right to his opinion as anyone else, and just as much right to express it. There has been a lot of opinion expressed here and in other news media about how there are people in government leadership who do not have the support of the majority. It seems this situation is not new and has been around throughout much of the history of this country, but we haven’t gone under yet. (No, I don’t have fast statistics on this.) I would remind everyone that Bill Clinton was elected president on only 42% of the votes cast, so one could say that 58% of the people did not want him to be president. Al Roder was hired by an elected government body, and is not subject to, and in my opinion, should not be subject to, political pressures.

    November 5, 2007
  11. Lisa Guidry said:


    Initially Al Roder had only one vote (which was the Mayor’s), and when the wanted candidate declined is when Al Roder got the job. They should have gone back to finding someone else instead of settling for Al Roder.

    November 5, 2007
  12. John George said:

    Lisa- Are you saying that all the political upheaval in this town is being caused by an employee, and not a political person? That seems strange. The thesis of the Dennison book is just that, and, somehow, it just seems a little too simplistic. What we are experiencing is small town politics happening in a town that is growing larger very quickly. It is really easy to put the blame on the new kid on the block and never address the underlying problems, some of which, it appears, have been festering for a number of years. I don’t hear council members expressing disagreement with the city administrator. What I hear are council members expressing disagreement with the mayor and general confusion in working with one another. See my post #13 under the “charter being to blame” stream.

    It could be that the first candidate could see trouble coming and opted out of it (just my speculation here) and Al Roder chose to take the job on in spite of this. I haven’t talked to him, but I wonder if he is having second thoughts about making a commitment here? I would opine that hind site is always 20/20, but we need to recognize the situation we are in and begin to work our way out of it. I’m not convinced that replacing everyone in the whole city government will solve our problems.

    November 5, 2007
  13. kiffi summa said:

    The thesis of the book, “Denison, Iowa”, is the possible revitalization of failing small towns by the immigrant populations who find opportunity there; and how democracy cannot work for that newly engaged population if the political process is perverted to operate behind the scenes, for others personal gains.


    November 6, 2007
  14. kiffi summa said:

    John George says, post #62 : “I’m not convinced that replacing everyone in the whole city government will solve our problems” …
    Well, I’m not either … there is a major staff problem ,also. But, John,
    do you , like Anne, think some members of the public are the problem, i.e. Anne has said that the public that speaks is not THE public …

    Then which “public” is to be listened to, the one that does not bother to come and express their opinion, and therefore remains the silent (minority/majority?) but CORRECT public?

    There are respected people in Denison, Iowa who caution, “…if you don’t speak up, your town will end up with the same problems as our town…”

    November 6, 2007
  15. John George said:

    Kiffi- I’m not quite sure how to respond to your post #64. It appears that you are saying that to solve the “problem”, there must be someone to point a finger at and “blame” for the problem. Am I correct in my analysis?

    My personal opinion is that there has been too much finger pointing and blaming going on, especially on this site. I’m assuming the comments expressed here are a carry over from daily discussions between people in town. If I’m wrong on that point, I certainly want correction. My perspective of the “problem” is that it surrounds communication and agreement. There have always been disagreements and differences of opinions in any city, but people have been able to get past those points and agree on goals and procedures for the common good. This characteristic is what I see as lacking in the political climate in town right now. To say that one part of the public is the “CORRECT” part is to imply that some other parts are incorrect. This attitude is divisive and what I see as a hinderance to progress. Intead of discussing issues civily and coming to agreement on them, it seems we are getting more polarized. This is my greatest concern.

    As far as other people speaking up, I wonder if many are afraid to? I supose there are those who are passive and really don’t give a hoot, but I suspect (hope) they are a minority. I also wonder how many are privately encouraging their councilors and trusting them to do the job they were elected to do? Not everyone wants the lime light, but they are just as committed to the city as those who speak publicly. I believe there are winds of change blowing across Northfield. To some, these are a threat. To others, they are a breath of fresh air. And, the prayer continues to be offered up for the city.

    November 7, 2007
  16. kiffi summa said:

    John:problems do not spring up unbidden from cornfields, any more than city halls do … there are problems within our governmental community,in city hall, and since we are governed by people, and regulated by their “staff”, yes, that is where the problems lie.
    You said: “people have been able to get past those points and agree on goals and procedures for the common good” …
    That is precisely what needs to happen; but first “they” must agree that “they” have a problem, and judging from recent council meetings, “they” have no recognition of the problem, except for focussing blame on one person, when there is more than one person creating the negative dynamics.

    November 7, 2007
  17. Jane McWilliams said:

    Don’t you think, Kiffi, that by agreeing to a retreat, the council is tacitly acknowledging they have “a problem” or even, some problems? I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they select someone who can help them identify what the reasons are for their lack of comity and coherence and that some coping mechanisms are agreed to. How about you?

    November 7, 2007
  18. kiffi summa said:

    Given the firm positions that were spoken/taken by councilors that I have formerly thought of as thoughtful, and I now hear speaking inflexibly…and I am speaking in reference especially to remarks made by C. Davis …I will need to see some results. At this point , having carefully listened to what has been said, and carefully watched what has been done, I am not hopeful of these very entrenched personal conflict positions being changed.
    I sincerely hope I am 100% wrong, and that everything is hunky-dory after the retreat … but at the NOV 1. meeting , Arnie Nelson is the only one who alluded to the intractibility of positions when he said, ” what are we going to do, shoot the Mayor”?
    I heard that to be, “Is there no way we can ever position ourselves differently, and move forward”?
    At this point, I need to have it proven that “the fox won’t eat the chickens”;
    I’ve seen too many foxes acting like foxes.

    November 7, 2007
  19. Lisa Guidry said:

    I suggest everyone should read the new post by Jaci Smith on the Northfield News blog. She states that the city supposedly solicited 5 companies to bid on the audio/visual contract, but the one that she talked to said they never heard about the project or that they were solicited. She will continue to try to reach the other 4 companies.

    November 10, 2007

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