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Visioning Has History in Dubuque

Envision 2010 Not the First Time Community Input is Taken to Shape Action by the City

Rob Kundert

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

December 29, 2005

Community-based think-tank programs have evolved into public policy in Dubuque . . . Just kind of spreading some seeds around the community and have the community take ownership of it.
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Residents next Thursday will see the result of six months of community brainstorming, committee work and surveys when the top 10 ideas of the Envision 2010 project will be announced.

How seriously do City Hall and community leaders take such "visioning" projects? Is it just a bunch of feel-good sessions to lead citizens to believe they have more of a voice in local decision-making than they really do?

"It is imperative to get community input through a process like Envision 2010 so that the resources of the community, including time, talent and money, are directed toward what the community wants," said Mike Van Milligen, Dubuque city manager.

Recent history shows that such community-based think-tank programs have evolved into public policy in Dubuque.

The visioning process is a nationally recognized approach, according to Dave Rusk, who 15 years ago chaired the committee that developed the Vision 2000 document for the city.

That two-year project was the basis for the city of Dubuque's Comprehensive Development Plan adopted in 1995 and in use today.

In the late 1980s, Dirk Voetberg, then a member of the Dubuque City Council, and Ken Gearhart, Van Milligen's predecessor, suggested the need for an overall direction for the city as it developed, Rusk said. Devising the plan would be different, though, because it would be centered on citizens rather than city hall or a particular group providing the ideas.

"We decided (to have) breakfast meetings with various people in town, from business, labor, education, government and various others to discuss the need for a planning process for the city of Dubuque," Voetberg said.

"It was an absolutely novel way of launching this idea. Just kind of spreading some seeds around the community and have the community take ownership of it," Rusk said.

After a steering committee for the Vision 2000 project was selected, it worked with a consultant and developed a multi-step community process to create a vision for the community.

"We gathered people together, we had them fill out surveys, we had a validation step, all the methodologies that are common to gathering people together and sharing ideas," Rusk said.

The finished work was presented to the City Council in January 1992. Three years later it evolved into the city's comprehensive plan. The public input that was gathered continues to provide benefits.

"We refer back to data that was collected for the Vision 2000 process. The city manager uses it in presentations to service organizations and other groups," said Laura Carstens, city Planning Services manager.

When the city wanted to lay out a plan for downtown development, it looked to the same process, Carstens said

"Vision Downtown was the basis for the Downtown Master Plan," she said of the document that resulted from a second series of public input sessions and surveys.

Rusk was the point man on that project as well as chairman of the Downtown Planning Committee.

That effort, completed in 2002, was actually a more focused version of the one used for Vision 2000.

"Essentially the downtown is a subset, a neighborhood plan, of the comprehensive plan," Rusk said.

Fast forward three years to July 2005 and the next community-input effort- Envision: Ten Community Projects by 2010.

Though the concept is the same, the end product is different than the other two visioning projects, Rusk said.

"Vision 2000 and Vision Downtown were all about developing a framework for future activity in the community. If you look at the statements in both of those documents, it's more about ideals and values; very generalized things," he said.

Contrast that with the Envision process.

"It's working to identify 10 specific projects in the community, to answer that question of, 'What's next? Where do we go from here?'" Rusk said.

The Envision process also encouraged even more individual involvement from private citizens, groups and employers by having them host their own brainstorming sessions.

Through the month of December, the committee used input from those meetings coupled with survey research to arrive at the final list of 10 ideas the community would like to see developed by 2010.

Dubuque is a champion of such community visioning projects and could even be the poster child for them, according to Rusk.

"Gathering ideas from any source together with gathering people together to talk about ideas is a positive thing. What digs down to the American way better than that?" he said.