There was a milestone of note recently, and it is a shame there was not a big public celebration.
Twenty years ago, Gov. Tom Vilsack and the Iowa Legislature had the foresight to create a program that has brought important changes to communities large and small across Iowa.
The program was called “Vision Iowa” — and it certainly provided that.
The initiative enabled communities to bring projects to life that probably never would have gotten off the ground without the unusual financial arrangement that was the beauty of Vision Iowa.
State government provided part of the investment for these projects. Cities and counties put in taxpayer money, too. And donors chipped in with the rest.
The result was something bigger than any individual partner could have accomplished on its own. Many of us have patronized the attractions and amenities that were spurred by the Vision Iowa program, but we probably know little of their financial origins.
Vision Iowa projects can be found from border to border. There are convention and events centers like the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, the Great River Center in Dubuque, the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa, and the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City.
Vision Iowa money helped establish the 20-mile Flint River Trail along the Mississippi River in Burlington, the Kings Pointe Waterpark and Resort along Storm Lake, and the Science Center of Iowa and Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines.
Of the many projects Vision Iowa helped to launch, perhaps none is more unusual than one in Gladbrook, a Tama County town of about 950 people. A public/private partnership there established a 200-seat movie theater that is run by volunteers. The theater is next door to a museum called Matchstick Marvels, which houses some of the amazing scale models a local craftsman, Pat Acton, has built — from matchsticks.
We aren’t talking about modest tabletop models in this museum.
Acton’s matchstick replica of the U.S. Capitol is 12 feet long. The Apollo 11 rocket would stand 20 feet tall if it weren’t hanging from the ceiling. His incredibly detailed replica of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris used 400,000 matchsticks and gallons and gallons of glue.
Creating these matchstick marvels is not easy, but creating Vision Iowa was not easy, either.
Critics disliked the idea of the state selling about $200 million in bonds to provide the pot of cash to get the program up and running. The bonds were paid off over 20 years, using about $15 million annually from the state tax on gambling activities. The final payment was made last month.
The idea behind Vision Iowa was to improve the quality of life in our state by investing in recreation, entertainment and community attractions. Vilsack’s concept was that such strategic investments could help keep young people in Iowa and serve as a draw to boost tourism, too.
Another benefit of Vision Iowa projects was the short-term construction jobs and variety of permanent jobs the projects created.
Michael Gartner, the Des Moines business owner who chaired the Vision Iowa board of directors in those early years, said recently the Gladbrook project is his favorite.
“The program is a testament to how one man’s great idea can have a great impact on an entire state,” he said of Vilsack. “The bonds were leveraged to create over $3 billion in total projects across the state.”
The money from Vision Iowa helped provide an important financial infusion for projects that might not have been doable otherwise or that might have taken many more years for financing to be lined up to make the projects happen.
State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald put in a plug last month for why the state should create another program like Vision Iowa to focus on community revitalization efforts, especially in rural Iowa.
The cost of selling another batch of state bonds would be quite low, Fitzgerald said, because interest rates are so low now. That would create another pot of money the state could invest in communities the way Vision Iowa did.
State leaders’ vision 20 years ago made possible important changes in the face of many Iowa places. We now need leaders to stand up again and help make other communities more appealing, too.
Just shrugging and saying “no” to Fitzgerald’s idea is not the way to make Iowa more successful in retaining our high school and college graduates or to make Iowa more attractive for out-of-staters who might visit or settle here.
by Randy Evans
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