Community leaders always prefer to see the glass as half full instead of dwelling on trends and policies beyond their control that could easily produce anxiety — or ulcers.
I had a friend for many years who fit that description. I would call him an optimistic realist.
I’m sure he had opportunities to follow a career path that would have taken him to a large city, just as I did. Instead, he chose to work and expend his leadership energy in a smaller town with fewer people than some neighborhoods in Des Moines have.
He never wore blinders, however. He closely followed what our leaders in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines were doing and how their decisions affected life — and the future — of his little corner of the world.
He was not a naïve person. He knew that his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes were not going to compete for the national championship. He knew that the days were long gone when a shopper would have to circle the town square before finding a parking space in his town.
He understood it was more difficult for politicians in Washington to relate to communities like his. But he still thought government leaders in Des Moines should not deal an unfair hand of cards to rural communities like his in favor of the hand being dealt to Iowa’s large population centers.
He was involved in trying to recruit small manufacturers to locate plants in his town and provide jobs that would entice young people to remain after high school. He coaxed and cajoled his community to not be complacent and to make needed improvements.
He died before Iowa’s economic development efforts became more focused on investing in big projects in big communities. The policies we see today would have him sputtering, because I know he would not be keen on government providing a helping hand to some projects while turning its back on others. Picking winners and losers is what some call this.
Had my friend read this week’s Des Moines Sunday Register, his blood pressure would have surged when he saw the front-page article about a $9 million project the Iowa Economic Development Authority has walked away from in northeast Iowa.
The project in the heart of downtown Charles City is mixed-use building that combines retail space on the ground floor and two upper floors that contain 33 apartments. The center of the building has a picturesque clock tower reminiscent of those atop many courthouses.
Community leaders in Charles City hoped the McQuillen Place development would give the city an economic shot in the arm, providing needed housing and new downtown commercial space.
The project is important because Charles City has had a tough go in the past 50 years.
A tornado tore through the city in 1968, killing 13 people and injuring 450. The flood of 2008 damaged or destroyed 500 homes. And in 1993, the White Farm Equipment Co. closed its tractor factory — where the first gasoline-powered tractors in America went into production in 1901 under the Hart-Parr name. The closing left 3,000 people without jobs.
The cumulative effect of these setbacks shows up in the city’s population. Today, Charles City has about 7,650 residents. That is down by one-fourth since 1950, when 10,300 lived there.
The McQuillen Place development is not a venture cooked up by some giant real estate corporation from out East or the West Coast. Instead, it involves native son Charles Thomson, a Chicago attorney, whose father ran a Ben Franklin variety store in Charles City.
Thomson hoped his project would be an important boost for his hometown. He and Chicago architect James Gray have put several million dollars into the $9 million venture. Besides their equity, the financing package included a $3.9 million bank loan, federal flood assistance and state tax credits worth about $500,000.
Construction delays kept the project from being completed within two years, as the Iowa Economic Development Authority wanted. For that reason, the state took back its tax credits. Then the bank called its loan, and work on the project halted about six months before completion.
The project now is tied up in a succession of lawsuits filed among the parties.
Thomson believes the Iowa Economic Development Authority was too quick to yank its tax credits. The agency is too focused on big projects in the state’s metropolitan areas and is paying too little attention to the benefits economic development aid can provide to communities like Charles City.
“If they want small towns in Iowa to survive, they’re going to have to change their attitude,” Thomson told the Register.
“I think the state would want to encourage nutty people like me, rather than send a message to all the other Charley Thomsons out there that if you put your neck on the line, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll pull the rug out from under you.”
Thomson is correct. State and local economic development incentives totaled $200 million for the new data center Apple Computer, the world’s wealthiest company, is building in Waukee, a Des Moines suburb. That is about $400,000 for each job Apple promises to create.
Thomson’s project and its $500,000 in tax credits seem like small potatoes compared to Apple’s. But my late friend would have said state government should be more patient with home-grown projects like Charles City’s and should see this project through to completion.
That would ensure McQuillen Place is a winner, not a loser.