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SPARK-ing ideas in North Liberty

Unique public forum highlights the best of North Liberty, and offers suggestions for the future
North Liberty Mayor Terry Donahue (middle) listens as Summer Jagnow speaks about the concept of co-housing (a communal mode of living with shared resources) Tuesday, July 30, during the SPARK North Liberty event at the Tin Roost restaurant in North Liberty. Eight presentations offered ideas on what makes the growing city great, and what might make it even better. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– What is so special about living in North Liberty? What would make living in North Liberty more enjoyable? How can a smalltown feel be maintained in an ever-growing community? What would help North Liberty be a more progressive community in the future?
Eight presenters, sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs, and even in a small group, took center stage on Tuesday, July 30, at the Tin Roost restaurant in North Liberty for a unique event called SPARK North Liberty to present their answers and vision.
Jen Neumann, with de Novo marketing (the firm working with the City of North Liberty on marketing and logo development, as well as a visioning process for the future of North Liberty), said a Spark Event is designed to give people who have ideas for the community a way to share them in public. “Maybe they can get support or spark an idea for somebody else, or make a connection,” Neumann said. It could be a funder or somebody willing to volunteer to make it happen, she said. “The idea is to connect ideas with people in the community who are interested in it. It’s one big night of ideas and stories for North Liberty.”
de Novo has done community events of a similar nature in other cities, Neumann said. “It’s just a great way to get those ideas out in the open and give them a little oxygen to get a flame started.”
“We’re excited to talk about the future of North Liberty,” said Nick Bergus, the communications director for the city. “We’re in a good place now, but we want to figure out where we’re going to be in five, 10, 30 years.” A large banner broken into five-, 10-, and 30-year sections allowed people to put their ideas, wants and vision down in writing as one more way to gauge the needs and desires of the community.
“What’s important, is your ideas,” North Liberty Mayor Terry Donahue told the audience. “We need to set the vision, and the thing is, we want to start designing a community that you will be very proud of. I know you’re all proud now, but we can do better, and we will be better.”

A roller skating rink in North Liberty?
Kathleen McKean, Jen Arturo, and Ryan Stanley would say yes. In fact, they enthusiastically and emphatically made their case for one (also serving as a “multi-use center) while wearing roller skates. “Who’s going to be skating? Everyone,” McKean said. “There are so many residents of North Liberty already skating, they’re just going to other places.” Skaters, including members of the North Liberty Skate Club, currently use Centennial Park, but as McKean pointed out, winter negates year-round use. She also pointed out there are not many places in town currently, “where people can just go and hang out, that isn’t the Rec. Center, which is a great place but we need more of that where people can just go and hang out, and socialize.”
The trio’s vision for a rink includes someday, hosting kid’s skating classes, the Iowa City Roller Derby, the Junior Iowa City Roller Derby, and eventually its own roller derby in addition to a variety of other programs.
“Skating brings out your inner child, and you never get old when you’re on skates,” she said. The rink would also provide play space for kids, and could be available for special events such as birthday parties, McKean added. “When do we need this rink? Now. It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s also going to take a village to raise a roller skating rink.” An immediate start, she said, would be for the city to purchase “community skates,” for people to use at the recreation center or at the schools.

Cutting down a tree plants roots
Tyler Strand was new to North Liberty, statistically one of the fastest growing communities in Iowa. A “sense of community” is one aspect of the city Strand has noticed, and hopes it remains well into the future, despite the continued growth. “That’s something my wife and I felt immediately,” he said when they moved to North Liberty a few years ago and bought a house. “We knew very little about this community, much less owning a home. But within a few hours of unpacking boxes on a hot July day, we had three sets of neighbors stopping by. They each greeted us, welcomed us to the neighborhood, and said, ‘We’ve got anything you need,’ so we felt right at home.”
Within a few weeks, an apple tree full of rotten apples led to a conversation with one of his new neighbors. Soon after, a half-dozen neighbors bearing saws and other tools converged upon the derelict tree and helped Strand to cut it down. “We started on Friday and had it finished by Sunday,” he recalled. “I know it’s not the best analogy, chopping down a tree to put your roots down somewhere, but by the end of that weekend, we felt we were part of a big community.”
In the coming weeks Strand and his wife got to know their neighbors even better.
“I hope that sense of community, as North Liberty continues to grow, and expand, and the population increases, I hope that never goes away. Rather than a solution to a problem, consider my proposal more of a friendly reminder, or a challenge to continue to try to preserve that sense of community, because I think that’s something really special.”

Growing the community with a community garden
Michelle Edwards, whose presentation was voted the “best” by the audience, said North Liberty needs a community garden. “This would require everybody’s help as far as maintaining and making it possible. It would be solely volunteer-based, and it would be a gated community that would have set hours of operation, and would be open to everybody in the community as well as visitors.”
Edwards envisioned a large complex with a “wishing well” and space to “hang out” and socialize with amenities and space families could enjoy for a day out together. A proposed patio space would be large enough to accommodate food trucks and a Farmer’s Market (not only for outside vendors, but also for produce and flowers grown in the garden). A gazebo, which could be rented out, would also be located at the site for parties and weddings. Kitchen and restroom facilities, she said, would also be available, and “money from the rental facilities would help fund the garden and maintain it as well.” As an added benefit, vegetables grown in the garden could be used to support the North Liberty Community Pantry.

Feeling jaded? Take a walk down Front Street
Keith Feldmann has been a fixture in North Liberty for a long time. He’s a third grade teacher at Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, and previously taught at Roosevelt Elementary in Iowa City. “When Van Allen opened up, I jumped at the chance to teach at a school in the community where I live.” He figured he’d save about $60/month in gas, “and that buys a lot of magic markers. So instead of spending an hour a day in my car, I started walking to school.”
And that’s where Feldmann’s story truly begins, and when he began meeting, “a lot of really nice folks.”
At first, he said, people would stop and ask him if he needed a ride. “A couple of people a day. And I would say, thanks anyway, I like to walk. After some time, folks learned that I like to walk, and then they’d just wave. Dozens of people each day that I didn’t even know. But I felt like they were my friends, because I waved at them every morning.”
One “friend” said she knew if she was running late or not by how close to the school he was when she passed him, Feldmann said to laughter.
Feldmann told of meeting “Tom,” a man who would stand in his garage every morning as Feldmann passed by. One morning, he stopped and introduced himself, sparking a friendship.
“This isn’t a story about how ‘great’ I am, it’s a story about how kind the people of North Liberty have been to me. It’s about the connections we make, the relationships we have, and the respect we hold for each other. So sometime, when you think the world is all shade and mean, turn off your Internet and walk down Front Street.”

Co-Housing as a communal living option?
Summer Jagnow laid out her vision for co-housing, “An intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space,” she said. In addition to developing personal relationships in a close-knit community, it’s also about “reducing our carbon footprint,” and creating a more environmentally sustainable future.
She discovered co-housing when she went to sell her house, with the desire of finding a smaller (1,000 square foot or so) house, “Because most of the space in our houses, we don’t use. I use my bedroom, and I use my kitchen, but I don’t use my guest room, I don’t use my family room, and I just store junk in one side of my garage,” Jagnow said. Co-housing, she said, is intended to be multi-cultural, multi-generational, and have diverse socio-economic statuses. “It is not ‘low-income’ housing,” she said, “And it’s certainly not for everyone.”
She cited a number of successful co-housing communities such as one in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Oakland, California, and even one in Iowa City, which she visited.
“Everyone has a private home, they have kitchens, but they’re also intentional about sharing spaces, sharing resources, and sharing responsibilities,” she said. Jagnow explained they have a common house with things like a playroom for kids, but not everybody has a lawnmower, not everybody has a snow blower, and they have a shared garden.” Not everybody has a guest room, but then, not everybody needs a guest room either, she pointed out. “They have a shared kitchen, they have community meals once or twice a week. It’s just really neat the things they have out there, and it creates an environment where it’s just natural to come together, and really know each other, and help each other.”
Jagnow stated 96 percent of co-housing dwellers say they have an improved quality of life. “They’re also more active in their community at large, and they vote at twice the rate of average Americans. It’s the housing design of the future that brings people together and consumes less natural resources,” she said. “And we could be on the forefront of this along with Iowa City.”

A home for extreme sports?
Ben Peterson would like more options, close to home, for “extreme sports.” Des Moines, he said, has already broken ground on what will be the “largest skate park, in the U.S. What’s important about having a skate park in your community, is building a sense of community, whether its for kids riding their scooters, people skateboarding, BMX-er’s (off-road bicycling), and skaters as well.” All of these sports build a sense of community, Peterson said. “A sense of community brings a park together.”
He touted health benefits as well as the social aspects of these sports. “It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s so much fun, and you’re happy and all these endorphins are going off.”
So how to make it happen? Peterson has scouted locations in several North Liberty parks including Centennial Park, Creekside Park and Quail Ridge Park. His next steps included choosing a location, estimating costs, and putting out bids. “So right now, in order to apply for grants you have to be a 501(c)(3) (non-profit organization). That’s the best way to apply for grants, the best way to raise money other than grass roots fundraising,” he said.
“I think that what North Liberty really needs, a place where children and adults of all ages come together, and play.”

A school to enlighten, promote mental health, and save the planet
“I’m going to make some bold claims,” said Lianna Cornally. She and Dawn Neff presented their idea for a unique charter school in North Liberty. “We believe that our project can put forth a solution for global warming. We believe that the mental health crisis that is happening in our nation, in our state, and in our town can be impacted by the work that we want to do. We believe that the disconnect, distraction, and the isolation that a lot of children, and adolescents and adults are facing have a solution. And, we want to be a part of that solution.”
The pair proposed opening a new school in North Liberty. But, Cornally said, it’s not just about putting bricks together and, “putting kid’s butts in seats. We want to build a school that is a coming together of people, organizations, businesses and families.” Cornally made it clear they love and support public education. “We just want to dream bigger,” she said.
Research shows, she said, that kids surrounded by, and immersed in nature as part of their everyday lives, “have empathy for the Earth. They see the Earth as their home, and they then want to protect it.” She added kids who are in a community with each other, and connected to people of all ages and socio-economic status are healthier and more resilient. “And we know that when we bring together our community, when we bring together businesses and our schools and our families, that we are all healthier, that we are all more connected.” Their plan is to “mash together” a nature immersion school and a discovery school built on a “foundation of mental health.”
“We need partners,” she said, “We would love to partner with Michelle’s (Edwards) community garden. Our kids can go in there, work in there, and learn so much about themselves and about the Earth. We want to build this with your help.”

What is North Liberty?
Alan Wieskamp grew up in Iowa City, and his best friend lived in North Liberty. He’d visit his friend but North Liberty was just “someplace to pass through,” and “a small town.” Cedar Rapids was a destination to see family, but thanks to a restaurant along the highway, North Liberty was “a place to spend time with family. North Liberty is where my family tended to gather because it was sort-of the midway point.” North Liberty was a link between the two cities, and a link for his family, he explained.
Wieskamp showed a vintage map of the North Liberty area from the early 1900s. The town was on a stagecoach route as well as the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (CRANDIC) railway line (with regular passenger service between the namesake cities. “It’s always linked people together,” he said. “The Corridor,” he said is well-known across the state as being very pro-growth, “And North Liberty is at the center of it. Again, in my mind, North Liberty is that link. Centrally located. A place to gather.”
He challenged the audience by asking “What is North Liberty? How do we embrace those people coming in? And how do we tell them just how great we are?”
Wieskamp was the final presenter of the evening.
“This is a community that has a lot of energy, and if you can harness that energy, and get people working together to create some things, then they have a stake in it as well whether its their idea or its people they know that are doing it,” Neumann said. “I think that’s a good way to get traction and really innovate around ideas in the community, rather than signing a petition, or things like that. Petitions still work, but this is a different way to approach it.”
Slides from the event are posted online at https://www.slideshare.net/thinkdenovo/spark-north-liberty-slides-post-e.... Also, a community survey is available online for North Liberty residents through the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 9, and can be accessed at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/52N9635.