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Keep Swisher Swisher, they said

Community survey leads to crafting a vision for the future
Rebekah Neuendorf listens as fellow Council member Jerry Hightshoe makes a point about the community-wide survey during a special visioning meeting of the Swisher City Council Monday, Oct. 19, at the community library.

SWISHER– A consistent theme ran through a recent community survey in Swisher: Keep Swisher Swisher.
Over 250 residents participated in the survey, up from 160 in 2012, according to Regenia D. Bailey, a former Iowa City City Council member and founder of Bailey Leadership Initiative, LLC. Bailey conducted a visioning session for the Swisher City Council on Monday, Oct. 19, at the Swisher Community Library, where the survey was dissected, and the first steps on a path to the future were taken.
Bailey said the survey participants love the small town, which was described as friendly, well located, quiet and safe. “There’s a lot of agreement on that,” she said.
Interest in local organizations seems high, she added, as does the desire for more recreational opportunities, particularly for kids. Respondents also asked for infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and trails, which she noted were already being addressed. The Division Street rebuild project, for example, includes sidewalk-trails.
“It was noted communications seems to be a challenge, and there doesn’t seem to be overwhelming support for city government,” Bailey said. There also wasn’t “overwhelming support” for any of the 13 items participants were asked to rate in terms of their importance for the city’s future. Included were: entry level homes, upscale housing, housing/neighborhoods designed for young families, condominiums, independent living units for seniors, rental housing, places to shop for essentials (groceries, hardware, pharmacy), places to shop for other goods (clothing, home goods, etc.), personal services (gym, yoga/Pilates, dance studio, hair salon), places to eat and employment options in Swisher.
For Councilman Jerry Hightshoe, the results of the survey were a little disturbing.
“I struggled with this on a personal level, when I read this, because I think I’m like most people on most councils,” he said. “I think most people on most councils run for these kinds of offices because we care about the future and the progress of our community, and the message that I get from this is, that the community is not interested in progress.”
Hightshoe said the message from residents is to leave Swisher as-is.
Mayor Christopher Taylor asked Bailey if it was reasonable to interpret the results as a hesitancy to support initiatives which would potentially change the small-town feel.
“That’s kind of what I walked away with,” Bailey said. “I was a little surprised, because in other communities you see, ‘Oh, we need this,’ or ‘absolutely we should do that.’ But generally, there’s not a lot of agreement on what we (the council) should do.”
Council member Rebekah Neuendorf said, “I think universally, everybody in Swisher has a fairly common outlook on why they live here, and so from the council’s perspective, I find myself struggling with how do you maintain that.”
Bailey noted it would be a key part of the discussion. “Maintaining the status quo requires moving forward,” she said. “You cannot maintain by keeping it the same, because costs go up (requiring some additional growth to provide the necessary tax revenue).”
Council member Mike Stagg pointed out the more popular choices on the survey are topics the council has been talking about for 20 years, with recent movement on some.
“I think people want to see improvements to the town, they just want it at a slower pace,” he observed.
One aspect of community growth is housing, and respondents preferred “entry level housing” above all other options.
“The message there is, they consider this a small town, and if they want growth, that’s the way they want to grow: small families, family-type homes,” Hightshoe surmised. “I understand that, and I agree. They want young people to move in.
“The message is very clear, that we respect and value the small-town atmosphere,” Hightshoe added. “We cannot continue to be this small. Fiscally, it isn’t possible to not grow, and stay alive, because your bills don’t stop growing. We have to grow or die.”
Mayor Taylor suggested controlling the growth with a deliberate approach to maintain the small-town atmosphere, to which Hightshoe agreed.
“Small, single-family homes are the priority,” he said. “Not apartment buildings, not $600,000 houses, they were very clear on that.”
Hightshoe also called for more businesses, particularly small family-owned ventures providing goods and services such as groceries.
“As growth does come, as we keep moving forward and extending out our borders… they want it to feel like it’s the same Swisher,” said Stagg. He, too, wants the city to grow, but slowly and deliberately, “Instead of us going too fast and getting into sort-of a bad situation.”
Hightshoe said the discussion about growth perfectly illustrated the difficulties the council has in getting its message out, coupled with the community’s perception of a lack of transparency and communication. “I think the respondents think that the council’s vision of growth is more of an explosion growth,” he said. “I truly believe that is part of the perception that the community has of the active council.”
Part of the challenge in growing Swisher is an apparent lack of interest by developers, as well as the city’s infrastructure, which includes what Mayor Taylor called the third rail; a lack of a municipal water supply.
“People hear ‘water,’ and they equate that with explosion of growth,” Taylor said. “If you want successful business districts. If you want people to be able to put in the businesses you want; you have to provide safe, plentiful water. That’s something I’d like to see.”
Taylor said infrastructure means planning five-to-10 years down the road to be prepared with supporting infrastructure as the city’s ideas of what they want to be changes. Talking about water now does not mean the city will be tearing up yards and laying pipe next year, Taylor pointed out, but rather the city has people exploring the possibilities of a water system with actual construction years into the future.
Neuendorf, a Swisher business owner, pointed out some residents may wonder why a water system is being discussed when they feel, “everything is fine, don’t mess with everything being fine.
“But, there’s very definite implications if you don’t add some amenities, the things that businesses or future families need or want, that is going to show… not today, maybe five-or-10 years down the road, when we don’t have any development,” she said.
Connecting the dots for people, she said, was vital. “It may not be broken now, but what we’re seeing is that it’s going to be very broken in the future.”
Stagg noted in a city made up of private wells, people see dollar signs when the city talks about a water system.
“They look at it as we’re going to ram a water system out there, and it’s gonna be very costly,” he said. “Some of them are on incomes that are… fixed… and that’s kind-of a threat to them. We need to be conscious of that, and we need to try and figure out the best way forward so it’s not that difficult to understand. Yeah, it may cost you some, but it’s not gonna break your bank.”
Ultimately, council member James Rowe said, it comes down to communication with, and from the public. “We’re not looking to expand out to (Highway) 965 and put in a Wal-Mart and multi-residential buildings. We’re looking to protect our little area here, and that’s a hard point to articulate.”
Bailey told the council members it’s hard for people to understand that to remain the same, you have to grow. “Expenses always go up, and how high do you want to raise your taxes to support?” she asked. “And, you can raise them so high, you do have a limit.”
Taylor said it comes down to three choices: raising taxes, growing the tax base or cutting back on services.
“Your vision,” Bailey said, “is to keep it (Swisher) small, with an intentional feel, creating a business environment that supports the success of locally owned, maintaining the character and esthetics, and communicating about it. You’re committed to keeping Swisher Swisher.”