Q & A with Community Partner Steven Van Steenhuyse, Development Services Director for the City of Mason City


Tell me about your background. How did you begin working for Mason City? What is your current role?

I was born here in Iowa, in Cedar Rapids, and I received both my bachelors and masters from The University of Iowa. I received my Masters of Urban and Regional Planning in 1987 and began working in various planning positions after that. I feel that my time at Iowa in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program really prepared me for all that the work I have done. I have been in the planning field for 30 years and have worked both in the public and private sectors. Working in the private sector is very unique because the jobs are so varied but I am incredibly excited to be back in the public sector and working here in Mason City. My title here is Development Services Director which puts me in charge of planning and zoning, building inspections and code enforcement, the transit system, as well as animal control.



What does sustainability mean for Mason City?

As a smaller, post-industrial, Midwest community there is a lot of nostalgic yearning for large companies that employ thousands of people and good union jobs that pay well, but those days are long behind us. When we try to approach sustainability we want to come at it from all three of the aspects and not just the environmental one. Sometimes when our community hears sustainability, what they register it as is environmental activism. As a result, our focus has been on educating people on the broad effects of sustainability and the benefits that go beyond environmental protection – I think we have been successful so far. The sustainability plan done last year by the urban and regional planning team is currently being reviewed by our planning and zoning commission and we are hoping to have it adopted by the city council by the end of the year. As we finish up that process, we are quite excited for the community to see the effects and benefits of sustainability.



How do you go about discovering what projects your community needs?

I think it is hard to balance between being proactive and reactive. I also think that the reactive things are often more pressing. At this point we are more reactive but we want to become proactive. However, in a small community where your budget is tight and the staff is so small it makes it difficult to function in a proactive manner. When we had the opportunity to partner with the IISC, we sat down with our planning and zoning staff and had 23 projects in our proposal. To some degree those projects are mostly reactive, but some of the plans are more proactive. The partnership with IISC is an opportunity for us to be more proactive and take steps to make sure the future is going to be better for the community.



How does being a resident of Mason City influence your position and goals for the city?

Myself and family all live here and it is a good place to have a family. Sometimes, it can be a challenge because what I want to see happen as a citizen and a tax payer may be at odds with what can actually be done due to the budget and other resources. In other words, the things I may wish we could do, we cannot do or will not do. That being said, I think that because I have a personal stake in the future of the community, it helps to focus my efforts in not only the various projects we are undertaking but even in the day to day tasks that we need to take care of to ensure a strong quality of life here.



In your eyes, how does the partnership with IISC work to propel the strategy and goals of Mason City?

One of the nice things about the program is that we have discovered new goals and new areas of focus because of the work we have done with the IISC. The opportunity to be able to do a lot of the things that I simply do not have the staff or the budget for is another amazing benefit. That right there has been worth its weight in gold as far as I am concerned. Also, the perspective that these young students have is refreshing. Experience counts too of course but listening to the opinions and perspectives of people who are not jaded by the realities of the world brings a lot to the table. It has helped us to really focus on where we should be spending our limited resources here in the community. And, of course, it has been a lot of fun to work with the staff and faculty, and get to meet the students who are putting so much work into these projects.



Could you talk about the impact that last year’s projects had on Mason City and what impact you foresee the current projects having?

The two projects with urban and regional planning that were done last year are going to be helpful going forward. The sustainability plan is going really well and moving through the system to get adopted. I am hopeful that the plan will do a great job of educating the community and show them how some of the things that they do now contribute to sustainability beyond any political ramifications they may have associated with the word. Same with the comprehensive plan update. Having the devastating flood we had really made us change the way we think about land usage. The new comprehensive plan update was quite necessary for us to refocus our goals towards resiliency.

The couple campaigns that were done such as the outline for the Mason City app called Embrace Mason City which gives the community and those visiting access to events happening, the ability to ask questions to the city, or even submit code violation reports. The design that the student group did for that app is very neat and the designers are very talented. We are hoping to work with a student group in the future that can finish the coding and programing in order to take that app live. Also, the community campaign that was put together in order to get people involved with local government, specifically with boards and commissions was helpful as well. As per Iowa law, we must work towards gender equality on these boards so we are really looking to bring women into these positions. We want people involved in Mason City who really want to serve the community with their talents and experiences.

This year, I am excited about the North End project and so are the people who live there. That area has lived so long with its negative stereotype that this project has been an opportunity to show that community they are not neglected. When that negative perception is there, finding a counter to it is important so this plan is one that many people are looking forward to.

The mural project through the school of art and art history has garnered a lot of praise and attention. That MFA student is extremely talented and we are seeing a big impact through the beautification of the building and it is causing people to look up and notice. The app going live is also something we are really looking forward to as well. There are just a lot of projects coming this year that the community is excited about.