BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – An aggressive plan to increase the population of Fort Madison about 10% in four years will take many tables of people and targeted solicitations, but Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said there’s a difference between the vision of the plan, and the goal.
Mohrfeld elaborated Tuesday the details of the program, some of which were outlined at last week’s City Council meeting.
“The goal is to add 1,000 people in four years. Why that’s important is that there are people, communities out there that have initiatives. But they’re not saying they’re going to add x number of people. There’s a real difference in a vision and a goal,” he said.
“We’re not getting a 2,000-employee packing plant and bringing in refugees or anything like that. But this is about diversity. We want diversity in jobs, people, and housing because that’s what a community needs. In no way shape or form is this designed around flying to Puerto Rico and handing out 1,000 airplane tickets. But we’ll have to embrace diversity and I truly, truly mean that. The world is different than Fort Madison.”
Mohrfeld outlined some of the plans last week, including seven strategic categories that need to be addressed specifically to make the growth sustainable.
Those included housing, jobs, infrastructure, attraction/retention, public safety, quality of life, and a targeted marketing effort.
Mohrfeld said it will take about 400 new housing units based on current people per household averages in the city.
But jobs and public safety are already in place. On Tuesday Mohrfeld said public safety in Fort Madison is the city’s “shining star”.
“I think our police and fire are top shelf and in good conscience I think we can market that we keep people safe here. Have we had some shootings, sure, but I would still say our people are safe here. Statistics do back that up,” he said.
Current statistics also show there is a 68% participation in the workforce in Iowa, but the area has more jobs than people.
As far as infrastructure, the mayor points to recent improvements and current projects in the works. He said the city is already designed for 15,000 residents so adding 4,000 should be easy to absorb.
“We’ve already ramped up our infrastructure improvements and that includes water, streets, sewer, etc. There’s more to be done for sure, but that’s important to note,” he said.
The one area in which the city is lagging is curb appeal and he said that’s a drum he’s been beating officially for three years.
“We need to be prettier. Our areas of high visibility have to be better,” he said.
The idea regularly heard around the community about there being nothing to do is met with stark contrast by Mohrfeld, who quickly points to the Tri-State Rodeo, Mexican Fiesta, Riverfest and the Summer Downtown Markets.
He also said there are amenities that people frequently mention the city is without that are actually within 20 minutes of the city.
“Within 20 minutes we have two pro bicycle shops, a running store, two or three bowling alleys. I’m in Phoenix and I can’t get to one of those in 20 minutes,” he said.
“Within 20 minutes we have a skating rink. We have one of the top outdoor rodeos in the nation, a Mexican Fiesta, a downtown festival. Tell me there’s no events in the area and nothing to do. How many people have an Amtrak station in town. Isn’t it interesting how you look at things?”
But when asked about where the 1,000 people are going to come from, Mohrfeld doesn’t hesitate to say the goal is audacious and the growth will come from internal and external sources.
“We’re going to have to reach out to find the fit for Fort Madison, and find the fit for those potential people,” he said.
“If someone can come to Fort Madison and prosper, that’s what we need – healthy, wealthy, and wise. It’s not just enough to be happy, you have to be successful and you have to be healthy. That’s the holy trinity of prospering.”
Mohrfeld and City Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker are making the trip to Southeast Iowa Days in Des Moines next week to meet with state officials including Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham.
Mohrfeld said that conversation will focus on broad topics of marketing the community as well as potential state incentives to encourage people to relocate to the area, including housing incentives.
He said the best incentives are those that build on each other.
“Are there incentives that could link jobs to housing? Say an incentive to pay the first three months of rent, or help with a down payment. Maybe that comes from an Iowa Workforce Development Grant, a Lee County Economic Development Grant, a city grant, employers match out on an incentive,” he said.
“If Matt’s Greenhouse hires a grower and gives him a $10,000 incentive to relocate here and $3,500 gets matched out by funds or groups of funds – what a cool idea. That’s brainstorming and visioning.”
He said the effort would focus on people that were here that may be looking for a reason to come back, getting people to stay, even if that means returning after college, and getting with parents who would like to see their children stay and aren’t ashamed to say that.
Mohrfeld pointed to Mike and Allison (Pickard) Park who brought their jobs back with them to Fort Madison, where she grew up, bought her parents home, and opened Pool 19 Plants and Records in town.
“Now we got people coming into town with their jobs. We’re seeing that and that was a connection to our town. And they’re having a lot of fun with that vinyl shop.”
Mohrfeld said geographically, Illinois would make a good place to start to look for people who are frustrated with the direction of that state. But he said the idea didn’t come from a couple ‘Come to Quincy’ billboards that popped up on the edges of town in the past four months.
“This has to be more about the connections,” he said. “But when you do think of geography and where we could potentially find people who fit Fort Madison, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Illinois is the place to pick on.”
He said this ambition will be different than the rapid success of the marina overhaul, but he said it shouldn’t be lost that the right dozen or so people can get things going.
“You put that right 12 people in the room and it can scare them how fast things move,” Mohrfeld said. “This won’t be one table, this will be seven tables where people come together.
“I mean, what do we do… do we sit around and die, or recognize we need to move forward?”