Saturday, September 17, 2022

IISC's 2019-20 partnership year with Keokuk, located in the southeastern corner of Iowa, was far from typical. For example, the city's approach to build the partnership around the needs of numerous community organizations gave us a new process that other communities could follow in the future. More significantly, we had to learn how to collaborate in the midst of the pandemic and social distancing. Despite the Covid-related challenges, we completed 21 engaged-learning projects in Keokuk and Lee County.  

We check in with communities we've worked with to learn about the effects of our partnership. Three years after entering into partnership with Keokuk, we talked with Shelley Oltmans, who guided and managed efforts on the community side. What follows are the themes that emerged from our conversation with Oltmans.

Bringing in funding

Through their inclusion in grant applications, these projects earned nearly $1 million for Keokuk, and the city hopes to increase this figure with future grants. “What this [partnership] really did was it built on our assets,” said Shelley Oltmans, the former Executive Director of the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce who led project coordination. Students from seven different university programs worked on the projects, which included a main street state highway study, an analysis of child neglect, a downtown redevelopment plan, a homelessness policy briefing, and a historic building restoration design.

“What this [partnership] really did was it built on our assets.”

- Shelley Oltmans, former Executive Director of the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce

Plans from the Keokuk Downtown Historic Building Restoration Engineering and Design Project were used in grant applications for $800,000 in ARPA funds and a separate $100,000 catalyst grant. These funds have been incorporated into an RFP to attract developers create ten market-rate apartments in downtown Keokuk. Oltmans said that without these grant funds, the project was not economically viable for developers. Additionally, the Downtown Redevelopment Plan is currently being used in an application for up to $1 million in Rural Housing Readiness Assessment funds to rehab city-owned property in downtown Keokuk.

Getting projects unstuck

The Child Neglect in Keokuk project was also cited in a Lee County grant proposal for a Resilient Communities grant to conduct a Strategic Needs Assessment. “The story of grant writing is that you want to show that you’re building,” Oltmans noted. She said that the use of IISC projects to demonstrate progress towards community goals was a key factor in strengthening grant applications.

Oltmans, who now directs the IDEA Center at Culver-Stockton College, said that some IISCs partnerships helped to get certain projects “unstuck” and into motion. For example, Keokuk had wanted to create a downtown dog park for nearly a decade. The park’s inclusion in both the Downtown/Riverfront Connection Design Project and the Downtown Redevelopment Plan helped advance conversations that ultimately led to the project’s completion in 2022.

Laying out a community vision

Oltmans emphasized the importance of linking these projects with goals outlined in Keokuk’s 2018 comprehensive plan. This document laid out a community vision, development plans for future land use, and a timeline for implementation. Most of the IISC projects were able to address specific objectives laid out in the document. By building upon Keokuk’s internal goals for the city, the IISC teams’ ideas helped to turn some of the visions from the comprehensive plan into a reality.

These projects also acted as informational material to Keokuk community members. People who were unfamiliar with a topic could use the IISC projects as an educational resource to learn more about a specific project or issue. This led to more conversations and a broader group of stakeholders, which included both ordinary citizens and individuals in leadership positions.

Oltmans wants to see Keokuk, despite its declining population, “be the best community of 9,900” that it can be. She believes that the IISC partnership has helped Keokuk work towards this goal.