116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - In May 2009, Iowa City Council member Matt Hayek delivered a sharply worded message to the University of Iowa.
Speaking at a council meeting, he said he felt the city had taken a number of steps to address long-standing alcohol-related problems downtown, but he didn't think the UI was doing enough on its end with students.
“There's supposed to be a partnership between what the city and the university is doing, and I'm not feeling much of that these days,” Hayek said according to a transcript of the meeting.
Now, two years later, representatives from both institutions say that while their relationship was never bad, it has improved to the benefit of the entire community.
“We're dependent on them, there's no question about it,” said council member Connie Champion. “I don't think Iowa City would be like it is without the university. On the other hand, every decision they make affects the city, and so it's really important that we can communicate.”
The UI has a $2.8 billion budget, is the area's largest employer with 1,700 faculty members and 13,000 staff and has more than 30,000 students. Champion said there have been times in her 13-year tenure on the council that it seemed the UI made decisions while only thinking of itself. She doesn't see that happening now.
Two items in particular are cited as helping to improve the relationship. One was the 2008 flood. Officials from the UI and area communities spoke regularly during the flood and have since to coordinate flood-related projects.
And then there's the drinking issue, which was the source of Hayek's criticism. Last year, many city and UI officials united in support of the 21-only law, which bans people younger than 21 from Iowa City bars after 10 p.m.
Hayek, now Iowa City's mayor, said the experience brought the city and university closer.
“We've got the ability now to pick up the phone and have a conversation,” he said.
Examples of the benefits of that are abundant: the city and university have partnered in a program to boost owner-occupied housing near campus, they are splitting the costs of a $55,000 downtown retail study, and the tax-exempt UI has said it would contribute $100,000 annually toward a special tax district proposed for downtown that would help market the area.
The UI also will relocate its flood-damaged School of Music to the neighborhood just south of downtown known as Riverfront Crossings. The city sees the music school, part of which is to be housed in a privately developed high-rise building, as a catalyst for future projects there.
It's probably not a coincidence that this increased conversation and coordination comes as downtown Iowa City is undergoing potentially major changes, in part because of the 21-only law.
Center of attention
Many of the aforementioned UI-Iowa City efforts deal with the city's center, and the UI's main campus is across the street from downtown.
“Iowa City is unlike any other college town that I'm familiar with in terms of the proximity of the university to the downtown, ... and I think it's what makes it a very special environment for those of us who live here,” UI President Sally Mason said.
Iowa City's vibrant downtown attracts and helps retain talented faculty and students, she said.
Mason said she made it a priority when she took over the UI in 2007 to reach out to leaders in the community and to understand the issues here. She said there were no major town-gown tensions when she arrived, which she said was unusual compared with her past stops at Purdue University and the University of Kansas.
As Hayek's 2009 comments showed, there was some strain. The UI has at times irritated local groups over its business decisions and land purchases. For example, it was criticized for buying the downtown movie theater and converting it to offices a few years ago.
Hayek said occasional discord is unavoidable because there are so many major players in the downtown area. But he believes some of the recent efforts are recognition that collaboration is important to the future of downtown.
Mason said she wants the UI to be a full partner rather than just the engine that drives the community.
“It needs to be a mutually responsible relationship, and certainly since I've been here it's become that,” she said.
Doug True, the UI's longtime vice president for finance, said the university has long had a good working relationship with the surrounding cities and the county. He points to joint projects to reconstruct Mormon Trek Boulevard and Iowa Avenue as examples of collaboration.
“I think we started at a good place, and we're getting better,” True said.
‘Ebbs and flows'
Karen Kubby, who served on the Iowa City Council for most of the 1990s, said she's found that the relationship between the city and the UI has “some natural ebbs and flows.”
Kubby now owns the downtown store Beadology Iowa and is one of the organizers of the downtown tax district, or self-supported municipal improvement district, that the UI has promised to help fund if approved.
Kubby said that came about because some SSMID committee members had relationships with people at the UI and asked if the university, as a major downtown player, would get involved.
“I think a lot of times we assume things about each other, organizationally and personally, and it's better to turn those assumptions into questions, and this time we asked the question and got that response,” Kubby said.