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Holly Berg – Ottumwa City Council

By Ellis Codjoe, September 29, 2017

Explain why you are running for public office.

I have always felt a need to give back to my community, whether it through volunteering, serving on a committee, or public service. Having spent time in many volunteer and committee roles I felt it was time to further my service to the community by running for City Council. My experience with regional planning, economic development, tourism, and community service provide me with the tools to create a better Ottumwa for everyone in which to live and work.

What will be your primary focus if elected?

My primary areas would be economic growth with a focus on local and downtown businesses, increasing access to quality, affordable housing, improving our workforce through utilizing training programs and connecting job seekers to available positions, and continuing to ensure our public safety departments are adequately staffed.

How long have you lived in Ottumwa?

Six years.

What is your professional/work history? Are you working now?

I currently work at Area 15 Regional Planning Commission as a Regional Planner, where I focus on grant writing/administration, economic development initiatives, and other planning projects. I am also an Adjunct Instructor/Professor at Indian Hills Community College and William Penn University. I previously worked as director of the American Gothic House Center.

Please provide a list of your volunteer activities and some information about those activities. (include time on city boards, commissions, councils, etc.).

I am an active volunteer for many organizations and events including Main Street Ottumwa, the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival, and the Halloweenapalooza Film Festival. I currently serve as President of the Ottumwa Area Arts Council, and Treasurer of the Central Iowa Tourism Region. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Greater Ottumwa Convention and Visitors Bureau and Pathfinders RC&D (resource conservation and development).

What is your educational background?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Geoscience from the University of Iowa and Masters’ degrees in Geoscience and Museum Studies from the University of Iowa and Western Illinois University, respectively.

Who is your biggest political influence? Why?

I would say my family. Growing up my grandparents were very active in the American Legion and Legion Auxiliary (with me in Junior Auxiliary). I grew up with a deep understanding of the importance of service for your community and country and the importance of involvement in government and the political process, no matter what your political beliefs. My mother also instilled this in me with years of community participation and volunteering. Both my grandfather and mother served as City Council members as well.

We often hear from individuals seeking public office of a need for better transparency and communication with the public. What specifically will you do if elected to improve transparency and communications?

The city has done a lot to improve transparency, and I appreciate their efforts. Council meetings are available for the public to attend or view online. That’s a big improvement. Personally, I will make myself available for people. I need the citizens of Ottumwa to tell me what they care about and what they need.

What are the three most pressing issues facing the City of Ottumwa? How would you address those issues?

The three most pressing issues are economic/business development, housing, and our workforce. I would have also included public safety on this list, but am optimistic with the changes made at the September 19th City Council meeting that we will see improvements for our Fire and Police Departments.

Economic/business development: There is a strong need to create livable and higher-wage jobs in the community. These skilled employment opportunities should focus on expanding and attracting new businesses in existing clusters and those that tie into in-place training programs such as bioprocessing, laser and optics technology, and robotics. It is important to also devote attention to local small businesses and the important role they play in developing a strong economy.

To attract new businesses to the region, attention must continue to be made in marketing our community and available sites and in promoting financial assistance and incentive programs through our local, regional, and state partners. In addition, we must provide and promote educational and financial resources for area entrepreneurs for local business start-ups and expansion

Housing: The availability of quality, affordable housing is a major concern for Ottumwa. Our community has a very high average age of housing and many of these older homes have issues related to maintenance, condition, and energy efficiency.

Also of note is our community’s very low housing vacancy rate of 1.9%. Lack of available housing reduces our ability to attract new businesses and workers, and limits Ottumwa’s ability to increase in population.

In addition, Ottumwa has a very high rental vacancy rate of 11.5%, showing there are far too many rental units, especially those of low-quality, for our community. Still, over 40% of those renting in Ottumwa spend over 35% of their monthly income on housing—meaning our community members fighting the most to make ends meet face an even harder struggle.

To address these issues, efforts need to be made to increase home ownership, rehabilitate housing when possible, and create new housing developments. I believe we tackle many of these problems by promoting already in-place programs which provide low-to-moderate income residents assistance for housing rehabilitation, utility costs, and funding towards down-payments for first-time homebuyers. More work should also be made to identify and recruit developers for middle-income and senior housing developments.

I also believe we should make efforts as a community to improve neighborhood appearance and conditions to make inviting and welcoming areas for current and potential new residents. In addition to providing/promoting housing rehabilitation assistance, we should also ensure we are addressing derelict housing and inspections of rental properties.

Workforce: Despite a decrease in our unemployment rates in recent years, Wapello County continues to face some of the highest rates of unemployment in the state. Many Ottumwans report working multiple jobs, many part-time, at wages much less than which they are qualified, or that they’ve left the workforce entirely due to a lack of quality job opportunities.

However, a majority of these currently not seeking employment report they would consider re-entering the workforce if positions with higher wages became available. And even with the high rate of under- and unemployment, many industries in the area report a need for additional employees. There is a need to attract these residents back into the workforce to fill the needs in the community. This would help motivate these residents to stay in the area instead of leaving for other employment centers which may have more opportunities.

Without an established workforce of trained individuals, current industries are restricted on their ability to expand. Attracting new industry is not only difficult but impractical. It is crucial to anticipate potential industry needs and trends to prepare the workforce for future employment opportunities.

I believe maintaining communication with industry leaders, economic developers, and area education centers is essential for planning for the future. We must educate and empower our community members to find employment with opportunities in the area, such as those in advance manufacturing and bioprocessing—two areas eager to hire.

We must also ensure residents are aware of available education and training courses, as well as financial aid and incentive programs in which to increase their marketability in the workforce. This effort includes not only reaching adults already in the workforce, but also educators who can prepare students for career opportunities in the region, retaining residents in the area.

What skills, qualities or experience do you possess that separate you from your opponents?

We all share an understanding of what it’s like to be a citizen in Ottumwa, and that’s the first requirement for being a good council member. City Council members have to remember that we serve at the pleasure of the people of Ottumwa. All my experience working and volunteering in the community means I’ll never forget that important truth.

I bring experience in planning, economic development, grant writing and tourism development to the position. As I see it, it’s not just the experience, it’s the outlook the experience brings to my understanding of how government should function. I can see both the big picture and the small details thanks to the projects I’ve worked on, and that’s a skill that is important for directing Ottumwa toward a bright future.

What can the city of Ottumwa do and what should it do to ease the property tax burden put on homeowners?

Things out of our control at the city level, such as the state’s commercial property tax rollbacks, have put our city in a difficult position. As we see revenue decrease from the state we must look at reducing expenses or raising revenue (taxes, grants, etc.). Increasing property values (commercial and residential) is one way to alleviate the burden by increasing property tax revenue across the board (eventually reducing the tax rate).

This is clearly shown in the work on Main Street. In 2010, the 300 Block of East Main’s total property valuation was $625,223. After the façade, upper-story apartments, green roofs, and Jefferson Street parking lot the block’s value in 2017 is $1,160,501. That’s nearly double the value, a proof that investing in Ottumwa is the way to ease the overall tax burden. There are three new commercial businesses with several more opening soon—increasing our sales tax income as well.

We need to continue looking at the big picture and implementing long-term plans and long-term solutions. We will continue to see these improvements in downtown with the current façade project and other projects in the future. I would like to see the same type of mentality taken to our neighborhoods as well with property rehabilitation projects and new property developments.

What can the city do to help young adults and millennials become home owners?

As referenced above, improving our number of home owners is critical in our community. We see in the numbers that home ownership can often be more affordable for our residents than renting, reducing the burden of housing costs. I believe we tackle this problem by promoting already in-place programs which provide assistance for housing rehabilitation and funding towards down-payments for first-time homebuyers. We also need to ensure we have quality housing stock available. More work should also be made to identify and recruit developers for middle-income developments as well as to rehabilitate existing houses in Ottumwa.

What can the City of Ottumwa do to improve the overall quality of our roads? Would you support a one-time massive push to improve all roads, even if that meant borrowing a large amount of money?

I do not believe borrowing for road improvements is the best avenue to pursue at this time. Though we have a long way to go, the City has worked to make improvements to the roads, and to plan these around other infrastructure projects (such as not fixing a road that will have sewer work done in the near future). I believe we need to continue to plan road improvements strategically and continue to find outside dollars to offset our infrastructure improvements, like the Community Development Block Grants the City has been receiving for water/sewer and community facility projects. I also believe we could do a better job of explaining to citizens why certain roads have not been addressed (again if there is going to be other work completed soon, etc.) to ensure we are all on the same page on our city’s progress.

What can the City of Ottumwa do to improve quality of life activities for its residents?

Maintaining and increasing quality of life amenities is essential to retaining and attracting new residents and businesses. Recreational facilities, arts and cultural opportunities, shopping and dining options, safe neighborhoods, and good schools are all important features of a vibrant community.

I believe our community should continue to support downtown revitalization efforts to create a more diverse and attractive downtown commercial district. We must ensure we are supporting and marketing recreational and cultural opportunities in our community and maintain strong communications with Main Street Ottumwa, Greater Ottumwa Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ottumwa Parks Department, Wapello County Trails Council, and other similar organizations to understand Ottumwa’s recreational/cultural amenities and needs.

What can the City of Ottumwa do to help establish new attractions? (Example: Museums, zoos, casino, traveling attractions, concerts, festivals, events, etc).

Some of my response goes back to the previous question. We have people in our community doing great things to create new attractions and events. Main Street Ottumwa continues to bring new events to our community and next year will bring in a travelling Smithsonian sports history exhibit (partnering with the Wapello County Historical Museum). We see the amazing things being done by Fly Ottumwa, Ottumwa’s Old School Arcade/Video Game Museum and Welcome Center, and many others. I applaud these efforts and want to see us as a community and a city get involved—how can we as a city assist in these efforts? What do they need to succeed that we can provide? I believe the success of these programs and projects will motivate others to get involved and continue the progress we are making as a community.

Do you support efforts to revitalize downtown Ottumwa including: White Box Program, Roof Program, Facade Improvement Program, Upstairs Apartments Program, downtown camera system, street-scaping plan, Canteen Alley Project, Etc.? Should these programs be expanded to other business districts?

Yes, I am very much in support of these programs. We have seen the positive changes from the façade program, upper-story apartments, etc. Not only do these programs improve the aesthetic of downtown and the quality of life for our residents, but attract new businesses, help alleviate our poor rental quality stock, and bring up property values bringing more revenue into the city. I believe it is beneficial to keep focus in the Main Street District in the short-term to make the biggest impact possible, but to continue these programs into other areas of Ottumwa in the future.

Ottumwa has long held a great financial rating, however budgets continue to decline state wide. Should Ottumwa consider eliminating or privatizing city services in order to make quality of life improvements for citizens? Explain including what services you would consider cutting or privatizing.

At this time I do not believe that is an avenue to take with any departments or services. Often privatizing means more work for other staff members who must coordinate those external services. We have seen issues with privatization elsewhere in this country. It’s easy to blame government for our problems, but government rarely gets kudos when it does its job well. When it’s working, people don’t notice.

We don’t need to take a pessimistic stance and start gutting our local services. What we need to do is develop relationships with businesses in Ottumwa. We need to bring new industries and new employers into town. We won’t improve quality of life by eliminating services, we’ll decrease it. We need to focus on improving the city, rather than tearing it down.

Do you believe that tax credits, breaks and other benefits given to box stores wishing to locate in Ottumwa (Example: Hobby Lobby, Kohls) harms other businesses already located here? Should the city continue offering those tax breaks and benefits? Should the council decide to stop offering these types of tax breaks, what would you do to continue attempting to attract new businesses?

I believe these benefits need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Many factors come in to play—amount of incentive, type of incentive, payoff to the city, number of jobs created, rate of pay and benefits related to jobs created, and how it fits into the current retail climate (i.e. if it is competition to local businesses).

Which is more important for Ottumwa’s prosperity in the future: Retail or manufacturing (industry)? Explain.

This is very much an example of the chicken and the egg conundrum. Logic dictates industry should be in place so that individuals and families have more money to spend in retail. However, a good retail environment is also an important quality of life feature necessary to attract new industry. I believe that both of these are equally as important for Ottumwa’s growth.

Wapello County has a higher unemployment rate than all bordering counties and is often considered one of the top 3 poorest in the state of Iowa. Why do you feel that is the case and what would you do to correct it?

Actually, according to the 2016 Laborshed Report, Wapello County’s unemployment rate is lower than Davis and Jefferson counties and higher than Mahaska, Monroe, and Keokuk. Wapello has less underemployment, where people responded that they would like to work more hours than their job allows, than Monroe and Mahaska. We’re in the middle of the pack on these figures, but they don’t tell the whole story.

According to the ALICE Report the United Way conducted last year, Wapello County ranks poorly in Housing Affordability and Job Opportunities. We have a problem with poverty in Ottumwa, not with the willingness of our citizens to work. There aren’t enough jobs paying a living wage when 43% of our city are living in poverty, and nearly half of those are people working. We have nearly 80% employment in Ottumwa, what we need are increased wages and more opportunities for education.

I want to take advantage of the resources we have in Ottumwa. We have students graduating Indian Hills with phenomenal technology skills. We need businesses in the area that take advantage of these talented people. We need to improve our infrastructure so that new industry can bring high paying jobs to the area. Most of all, we need to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. We need to look at a variety of businesses interested in starting up or relocating to Iowa. The more varied the economic base in Ottumwa, the better the city will fare.

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