116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Since being hired to lead Better Together 2030, executive director Cady Gerlach has been “planting a lot of seeds” for potential projects as Johnson County communities work toward a shared future.
The “All in Vision” plan focuses on five pillars — environment, neighborhoods and districts, well-connected mobile region, inclusive economic ecosystem, and re-imagining social services — each with projects that will help “transform” the area.
Better Together 2030 includes four groups — Iowa City Area Development Group, Iowa City Downtown District, Think Iowa City and Iowa City Area Business Partnership — along with leaders from local government, business, education and other areas of the county.
Gerlach spoke with The Gazette recently about her career and community involvement, as well as what’s to come with the visioning process and how the community can get involved.
“The work is really twofold,” Gerlach said. “It’s making sure that the community is invested in the plan and able to implement it how it works for them and their organizations, but then it's also implementing projects that keep things moving and keep us all moving toward the same north star.”
Getting involved in Iowa City
Gerlach, who is from Colorado, moved to Iowa City in 2013 to practice law at Meardon, Sueppel & Downer. Gerlach received her law degree from Syracuse University College of Law in 2013.
Gerlach got involved in helping get Iowa City’s Downtown Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District renewed in 2015, which she said got her interested in community engagement in Iowa City.
She worked at the law firm about five years before being hired as general counsel and director of strategic operations and resource management at Shelter House in 2018.
“Getting to support that staff and do that work was really, really meaningful,” Gerlach said about working at Shelter House.
It was during her time at Shelter House that Gerlach got involved with the Project Better Together team, which formed in 2020 to respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Project Better Together evolved into Better Together 2030 to focus on long-term planning.
When Better Together 2030 announced it was hiring an executive director to help lead and guide the long-term vision, Gerlach said she “jumped at the chance” to turn the work she was doing in her free time to a full-time career.
“It really gives me an opportunity to put all of the things that I love about this community and all the things I love being involved in into direct action and into working with just amazing community members across the entire county that want to make this the best place to live and work and play,” Gerlach said.
Gerlach, who lives in Iowa City with her husband and two children, said this area is “everything our family wants.” She wants that to be the case for all families and residents.
“It doesn't work for everybody, and I want it to work for everybody because it's an amazing community,” Gerlach said. “It can work for everyone, but we all need to focus on these pillars to really make it a thriving system for everybody.”
Putting the visioning plan into action
Gerlach’s first work in her new role was putting the “All in Vision” plan together using work and community input gathered throughout the months leading up to it. Then it was time to share the plan with the community.
“We developed a plan that works for our community as a north star that we can all be rowing our boats in the same direction,” Gerlach said. “I think COVID proved the concept that we were able to not only collaborate, but that we were able to actually work better together if we could all focus our energy and resources towards a common issue and problem.”
Gerlach has presented the plan to city officials, city staff, community groups, various boards and nonprofits. She said the work is ongoing “to make sure that we’re getting the plan in front of everyone.”
“Now it's time to put this all into action,” Gerlach said.
Work groups around each of the five pillars are forming and are anticipated to start meeting in the first quarter of 2023, Gerlach said.
More information on how the community can get involved will be shared Feb. 8 during an annual banquet hosted by the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, Think Iowa City and Iowa City Area Development Group.
“I'm excited to see the work groups form this year and really get these pillars off the ground in a very locally engaged way and allow community members to get involved in different work,” Gerlach said.
‘This can be a place for everybody’
Gerlach said she also is looking forward to seeing community groups amplify the work. Some initiatives underway include the Inclusive Economic Development Plan, making the Iowa River a destination and a child care wage enhancement program.
Gerlach added she thinks neighborhood associations will take a bigger role this year.
She also has a goal of working with small communities in Johnson County, like Lone Tree and Swisher, to make sure that they are involved in the plan as well and their projects align with the vision.
“We're all in this county, and we're all together and we all face similar but different issues,” Gerlach said.
Better Together 2030, with the help of interns from Cornell College, has started to collect data to get a starting point of where communities are. Gerlach said she hopes the data can be displayed so the community “can help keep us accountable and also keep themselves accountable for how we’re doing.”
The data will be tracked over the coming years to see what improvements have been made.
Gerlach said a common theme during the visioning process and getting community input was creating a sense of belonging.
“This can be a place for everybody, but we do need some transformational projects that will help direct our community efforts,” Gerlach said. “We also need to make sure that we can manage future disruptions, which COVID taught us and these projects will also continue to help us.”
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