Director of Iowa Economic Development Authority Debi Durham tours Lansing, and says she’s impressed by the “welcoming” community

IEDA Tour of Lansing takes advantage of Mt. Hosmer perspective ... Among the group providing and taking the October 11 tour of Lansing were, left to right, Nichole Hansen, director designee at Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA); Christopher Troendle, housing planner for Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) and board president of Main Street Lansing (MSL); Debi Durham, head of the IEDA and the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA); Andrew Boddicker, Main Street Lansing executive director; Anne Osmundson, member of the Iowa House of Representatives from the 64th district; Dr. Sarah Murray, superintendent of the Eastern Allamakee Community School District (EACSD) and principal of Kee High School/Middle School; Lansing Mayor Melissa Hammell; and Lansing City Council members Mike Manning and Curtis Snitker. Not pictured: Deanna Triplett, senior policy and partnership manager with IEDA. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Touring the Old Stone School ... The tour of Lansing provided to Iowa Economic Development Authority leaders Wednesday, October 11 included visiting the historic Old Stone School in Lansing. Viewing wall displays inside the building are, left to right, Valerie Reinke, executive director of Allamakee County Economic Development & Tourism (ACED); Main Street Lansing (MSL) Executive Director Andrew Boddicker; and Debi Durham, head of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA). Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

By early last week, Main Street Lansing (MSL) Executive Director Andrew Boddicker had all his boxes checked for an event he’d organized and scheduled for Wednesday, October 11 - a visit to Lansing by Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA).

Among the checked boxes, city council approval had been granted for an ATV/UTV Mt. Hosmer permit, and the council had also granted permission for Boddicker to clean the front, northwest room on the ground floor of the Old Stone School. Blake Schoh, owner of S&S Houseboat Rentals, was lined up to captain a short pontoon ride on the Mississippi River in the afternoon. Chef Wendi Wilson-Eiden had designed a menu and would be preparing dinner in the evening at Coffee On The River - the restaurant she co-owns with her sister, Diana Wilson-Thompson. The guest list was confirmed, and The Standard newspaper had assigned a reporter.

As far as Boddicker was concerned, Lansing itself had one job that day - to captivate Durham as she toured the town. “My overall goal was to make (her) fall in love with Lansing,” Boddicker wrote in a letter to local attendees the day after the event. “I think we achieved that yesterday.” The weather - the one thing Boddicker could not plan ahead of time - did its part: Temperatures were in the mid-60s under partly sunny skies. Winds were calm; and, as a result, so was the river.

Aside from Boddicker and Durham, the tour group included Deanna Triplett, senior policy and partnership manager with IEDA; Nichole Hansen, director designee at IEDA; Christopher Troendle, housing planner for Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) and MSL board president; Anne Osmundson, member of the Iowa House of Representatives from the 64th district; Dr. Sarah Murray, superintendent of the Eastern Allamakee Community School District (EACSD) and principal of Kee High School/Middle School; Lansing Mayor Melissa Hammell; and Lansing City Council members Mike Manning and Curtis Snitker.

Following a stop to view the recently renovated Main Street Plaza and its aesthetic centerpiece - the mural, “Reverse Effigy,” painted by Erik Burke this past summer and commissioned by Main Street Lansing in 2022 - the group took a UTV tour of Lansing, beginning with a drive up to Mt. Hosmer.

After driving through Mt. Hosmer Park (impressed, Durham said, “I thought it was some kind of state or national park”), the group took in the panoramic view, 450 feet above Lansing, of the Upper Mississippi River. With the iconic Black Hawk Bridge and what remains of the former power plant standing in the background as real-life visual aids, Boddicker told Durham about two of what he called “the biggest changes” facing Lansing - the closing of the power plant at the end of 2022 and the consequent loss of jobs and tax revenue, and the replacement of the historic bridge, slated to be completed in 2027.

Boddicker told Durham that the Iowa Department of Transportation’s (DOT) estimate for Lansing’s portion of the bridge replacement cost has doubled since the project began. The City’s costs are for re-doing the water and sewer underneath the new section of road leading up to the new bridge.

“We’re trying to seek funds (for the project),” Boddicker told Durham.

When Durham wondered whether the City had any sense of what Alliant Energy’s plans are for the decommissioned coal plant, MSL Board President Christopher Troendle said, “there’s not a lot of talk coming out; but I don’t think they’re looking to sell it.” (Alliant has said the closing is part of its transition away from coal plants and towards cleaner energy production.) “We’re in desperate need of more industry,” Troendle told Durham. “We do have industry, and hopefully we can expand on that. It would be awesome to see it grow.”

Troendle also told Durham that community members in the area are working with an initiative called the Just Transition Fund - which is described at as being “on a mission to create opportunity for the communities hardest hit by coal’s decline … We support projects in a variety of low-carbon sectors that create jobs, build wealth, and strengthen the local economy.”

Standing inside a former classroom of the Old Stone School while the group perused vintage photographs and displays, Boddicker told Durham about the findings and recommendations of the University of Iowa structural study commissioned by the Lansing City Council last year for the building, and about other ideas community members were talking about during a recent town hall meeting. Among the possibilities being considered, he said, are putting a community center in the building; relocating city government offices to the building; and putting apartments in the building.

Boddicker told Durham that “a complete ‘gut and reno’ is absolutely on the docket” for the building. “It’s upwards of a $2 million project. That’s a big ask of you, Debi, today.”

Regarding the need for affordable housing in Lansing, Dr. Sarah Murray, superintendent of the Eastern Allamakee Community School District (EACSD) and principal of Kee High School/Middle School told Durham, “Median income in Lansing is around $42,000. I’ve got families that need to be in a rental that’s $800 (per month) or less, and that’s not feasible in Lansing.” Additionally, Murray said, “We want to tell kids that ‘where you grew up is also a great place to raise your own family - and to live, to work, to play.’ But it’s a very hard sell to high school kids, when they can’t live here and make a livable wage.”

At the Old Courthouse in Lansing, Boddicker informed Durham the building had been purchased by a local buyer, and the process of developing the site had recently begun. The plan, he said, is to renovate the building to hold up to five apartments.

If the tax abatement ordinance currently being drafted for Lansing is passed, Boddicker said, this building would qualify for an abatement at the multi-residential level - which, according to the draft of the ordinance, refers to “the construction of new, long-term residential complexes, (qualifying as three or more units on a single-zoned lot) or new use of existing structures, such as historic buildings, churches, etc., by a qualified developer/property owner.” All qualified real estate assessed as residential property, the ordinance draft continues, “is eligible to receive an exemption from taxation on 100% of actual value for up to eight years.” Boddicker said he expects the tax abatement ordinance to be passed in early December, following two public readings.

Having completed the bulk of the event itinerary, the group was welcomed aboard for a pontoon ride by Blake Schoh, owner of S&S Rentals. The ride offered an opportunity for some reflection on the afternoon’s events - and on some implications for Lansing’s future.

“I’m impressed by the fact that young people are moving here, and getting involved,” Durham said. “You must be such a welcoming community.”

She also likes the inter-generational relationships she sees among the town’s leaders and emerging leaders. “It’s really encouraging,” she said. “I see real collaboration and support moving forward, from the ‘patriarchs’ – the mentors who’ve left their own imprint (to build upon).” And, she added, “I love those two iconic buildings - they’re so true to the community.”

Durham said while it’s unfortunate that funding for the Great Places program was eliminated late this summer - as follow-up on a recently passed bill that aimed to “consolidate” the state government - the legislature funded the Community, Attraction and Tourism grant (CAT) at $10 million and created a new state grant program, the Destination Iowa Fund grant, at $6.5 million.

Lansing is eligible to apply for funding through these grant programs, Durham said.  “I see a lot of opportunity here,” she added. “There’s a spirit here, and an energy. I can feel the momentum.”

Even with funding discontinued for Great Places, Boddicker said, the Vision Plan he and his committee wrote last spring in their application for the designation - which it received - is a document that will help Lansing as it moves forward.

“It’s State-endorsed,” he said. “And over half the town participated in the survey” on which it was based. “These are big pieces that the State needs to see, before they can trust the people who are going to do the work - before we can move forward with our ‘big asks.’”

For Boddicker, as for Durham, the heart of successful community development is people. “It’s always the people that make the difference,” Durham said. “Once you have that, then the State can come in and partner with the community.”

“I want people to fall in love,” Boddicker said. “It’s an easy place to fall in love with.” Lansing, he said, is filled with “people who are passionate about the work they do. When you go into a shop, you can tell that they love what they do. And Blake (Schoh, who captained the pontoon ride) - he was just great. He’s doing something that he loves, in a place that he loves.”

In the letter he wrote to local attendees the day after Durham’s visit, Boddicker said he was grateful for - and impressed by - the support, ideas, and camaraderie around the continued efforts people are making so Lansing can be a great place to live, visit and work.

“We know that we are facing some large projects that will need very creative solutions,” he further wrote. “Some decisions might not be easy or popular, but given the right research, the right attitude, and the partnership we just developed with the State through Director Durham, I think we are at the beginning of a period of incredible transformation.”