As his stretch at Dyersville’s helm comes winding to an end, Mayor Jim Heavens sat down with the Dyersville Commercial to look back on his 14 years in office and give his prediction about what the future holds.
Heavens’ first exposure to Dyersville came during a business trip in the 1980s, one he still fondly remembers.
“I went to the Basilica and was so impressed with Dyersville,” Heavens recalled. “I never thought I would ever be able to live here, but the opportunity presented itself about a decade later.”
In 1995, Heavens and family relocated to Dyersville from Charles City, where he was serving on the Immaculate Conception School Board.
After moving, getting involved again in local politics was not high on his list of priorities, but eventually, that opportunity presented itself as well.
“When Al Gibbs decided he didn’t want to run again for mayor, I went and talked to Monsignor (Edward) Petty to ask for advice,” Heavens said. “He told me to go for it. I asked him if I won, would he pray for me and he said ‘count on it.’”
With support behind him, Heavens threw his hat in the ring and won the first of what would become many mayoral elections. But soon after his victory, he again heard from Petty.
“After I won, (Petty) called my office and said ‘I’m going to tell you the one thing you have to do — don’t let the finances get out of hand or it’s going to come back to bite you,’” Heavens said.
That’s a piece of advice Heavens said he’s held close to his chest throughout his tenure in office, but when he first arrived at city hall, he was a bit surprised at the actual state of the city’s monetary situation.
“What I found was that the finances were far from being out of hand, in fact, they were too far the other way,” he said.
During that era, Heavens said the city’s philosophy was to save its money in bonds and CDs, just waiting for a rainy day. In fact, Dyersville’s savings were so robust that it even brought the criticism of newspapers like the Des Moines Register.
Heavens agreed with the critics, reasoning that from a governmental standpoint, tucking everything away in savings wasn’t the best use of the taxpayer’s money. Around the same time Heavens was entering office, Gibbs had just hired Mick Michel as city administrator, who also agreed.
“(Michel) and I kind of had the same philosophy — the city’s money ought to be out in the community doing something or back in the taxpayer’s pocket,” Heavens said. “One philosophy Mick and I also shared was that investment will follow infrastructure.”
It was the infrastructure investments that councils began making that Heavens largely credits for Dyersville’s tremendous growth over the last two decades, ballooning from a total assessed valuation of $119,883,900 in 2002 to $254,706,300 in 2021.
From a capital standpoint, Heavens said the city has also brought in around $26 million in the last 20 years, another figure he attributes to infrastructure investment.
“You have to watch your expenses, that’s a given, but I learned a long time ago you can’t save yourself into prosperity — you’ve got to make investments and I think we’ve done that,” Heavens said.
When asked to recall some of the more trying times during his 14 years in the mayor’s seat, Heavens was quick to answer.
“That’s easy — I think the biggest controversy during that first 10 years was the ethanol plant,” Heavens said. “There really was an organized resistance to that.”
TV crews were a regular at the tense meetings and citizens were worried about large-scale disaster, but Heavens said he is glad the project ultimately went forward.
“The council worked through that and made what I think was a good decision, but it wasn’t unanimous,” he said. “That ethanol plant now pays as much taxes in this town as 800 houses.”
The controversy at the Field of Dreams was another issue, where lawsuits were being filed in an attempt to stifle any development at the movie site. Heavens believes these disputes were ultimately the reason he was voted out of office in 2013.
“But that’s come around as well,” Heavens said. “I think if you keep doing the right thing — if you make your decisions in the spirit of goodwill, you’ll be ok in the long run, because I believe we are reaping the benefits of all that stuff now.”
In his role as a non-voting mayor, Heaven’s job has been to mediate, moderate and act as an ambassador for the city.
He said he’s worked with a lot of good councils who have made a lot of difficult political decisions and, while Heavens said he couldn’t take credit for all of the progress Dyersville has made over the years, there is the one issue he felt he did push over the finish line — a new interchange at the US 20 intersection on the west end of town.
Heavens said he had a series of conversations with officials at the Iowa DOT where he stressed that lives were being lost, and he believes that helped to push Dyersville from about 15 years back on the waiting list for funding to five.
“At the time, that was the second most deadly intersection in the state of Iowa,” Heavens said. “I think if I had to point to something where I contributed to more than just being there, it was that overpass.”
With his term ending this December, Heavens said he is feeling very optimistic about Dyersville’s future.
“It’s going to give me great pleasure to just sit back and watch what’s going to happen in the next five or 10 years,” Heavens said. “There are a lot of things in the wind for Dyersville that are very promising and I think it’s going to be fun to see it all unfold from the sidelines. Dyersville is very well poised for great things and that’s not true for every city in Iowa.”