After nearly a year of development, city leaders say they are following the road map to move Mitchell toward a better future.

While goal-setting and developing a plan for improving Mitchell's future with help of community-wide input was the primary mission of the Forward 2040 community visioning process that wrapped up roughly eight months ago, city leaders now face the challenge of accomplishing those goals. The $66,500 project began in January 2019, following the Mitchell City Council’s approval of Future IQ, a Minneapolis based consulting firm, to lead the community project.

Public Works Director Kyle Croce has been one of the city officials working to make progress on the goals outlined in the Forward 2040 planning process. Atop the list of future goals identified by the roughly 2,500 survey participants were improving the water quality of Lake Mitchell and beautifying the downtown area.

“It really helps with understanding the community needs and efforts that people want to see to develop a better future for Mitchell,” Croce said. “The data showed that making major improvements to the lake and downtown are the highest priorities of this community, and the study (Forward 2040 process) allowed us to consider the suggestions people in the community have for improving both downtown and the lake.”

With the city’s ongoing wetland project aimed at reducing the phosphorus and sediment flowing into Lake Mitchell and continued building improvements that a handful of downtown business owners have been making over the past several months, Croce said steady gains are being made to both vital areas of the city.

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Throughout the 10-month planning process, community members completed several surveys, shared ideas and goals to advance Mitchell’s future during a handful of group think-tank sessions, which ultimately led to devising a plan of action with a finalized report. It identified five strategic pillars for the city of Mitchell:

  • fostering supportive and inclusive community culture;
  • create an educational hot spot emphasizing innovation;
  • position Mitchell as a regional leadership center;
  • strengthen the local agriculture and industry clusters;
  • evolve Mitchell’s recreation, tourism and place-making;

As one result of the report, community participants suggested the city form more partnerships to address the issues facing Lake Mitchell. That includes the James River Water Development District, to Ducks Unlimited and other wildlife services and agencies since the City Council approved the $4.1 million purchase of the 371 acres of near-lake property where the city will be constructing a wetland and dam to filter out phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake.

Croce said the coalition of groups partnering with the city to help the wetland project materialize can be attributed to the Forward 2040 process.

“We had goals to form partnerships for the wetland project before the study, but we had some great feedback from the study in regards to working with other groups to improve the lake itself,” Croce said, pointing to the city’s continued collaboration with a newly-formed organization for improving Lake Mitchell known as Friends of Firesteel.

By identifying the list of shared goals for enhancing the community, City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein said it has served as a vital tool for city leaders to prioritize future projects that community members consider a top priority. In 2009, the city of Mitchell completed a similar long-term planning study, which was dubbed Focus 2020. As some participants criticized the Focus 2020 plan for catering to a smaller group of people, Ellwein said the engagement of the Forward 2040 project helped present the community with new ideas, along with addressing key issues that may be hampering growth.

“I like that anyone who wanted to participate had an opportunity to, and having the entire community moving forward with a shared strategic vision is going to be incredibly helpful to better position the community moving forward,” Ellwein said. “It’s so important to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and we learned that 80% of surveyors saw having a shared vision for the future as important.”

Despite city officials' support for the project, Council member John Doescher -- who represented one of the two votes to deny the project, joined by Council President Kevin McCardle -- stood firm in his opposition to the Forward 2040 process, criticizing the price tag and overall outcome.

“I don’t think you have to go through all that effort to map out goals for the future of Mitchell, because a lot of the stuff I heard that was being discussed during the project were things we knew before,” Doescher said in an interview with the Mitchell Republic.

Fostering inclusive recreation, youth involvement

For Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell fostering supportive and inclusive community culture was one of the five strategic pillars that stood out to him. After all, it led Powell to focus on ways he can provide more recreation opportunities for people who live with disabilities.

As a result, Powell developed a plan to construct an accessible playground at Patton Young Park, which features a ramp that extends throughout the entire playground, giving wheelchair users access to all the slides and features. Bringing more fishing areas that adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations to Lake Mitchell was another notable accomplishment Powell partly attributes to the inclusive-focused pillar of the Forward 2040 plan.

“The study helped me find ways to make parks and playgrounds more accessible and inclusive,” Powell said. “Listening to the comments and suggestions that we heard for recreation activities were great, and it really helped us recognize our strengths like the bike trails and golf course. It gave us a better idea of what some of the youth would like to see as well.”

While David Beurle, CEO of Future IQ, said sparking youth engagement is always challenging, over 200 students ranging from ages 15 to 17 who reside in Mitchell participated in the survey. According to the survey results for the youth respondents, technological advancements and creating more future recreation opportunities represented the two categories they saw as important for the community to focus on moving forward.

Throughout the think-tank sessions and group discussions, Ellwein said it was evident that many community members view the Lake Mitchell hiking and biking trails as a major asset for recreation options. The trail discussions led to the creation of the strategic action area, to build out multimodal infrastructure across Mitchell.

The city’s plan to work with the state Department of Transportation to construct a shared-use bicycle and walk path that will eventually stretch from the Highway 37 bypass to Lake Mitchell. That project, which will be part of the $20 million reconstruction of North Main Street, will take place in 2023.

In addition, the planning effort helped spark the Palace City Pedalers; idea to implement a bicycle parking space to the recently-completed Corn Palace Plaza. More shared use path construction is expected in the area of Norway Avenue and Rowley Street in the south part of the city in 2022.

“The key strategic action area led to us revamping the bike and trails committee to put a plan in place that will allow us to connect south of Interstate 90 all the way to the lake,” Ellwein said. “It will take a few years to complete, but we have already been adding more bike paths along the city to connect more key points of the city.”

Identifying key economic strengths

A major facet of the planning process delved into the economic strengths and geographic positioning of Mitchell. Ellwein said recognizing Mitchell as a regional hub was a critical discussion generated from the process, which shed light on the economic impact the surrounding rural communities have on Mitchell’s economic success.

According to the survey data, 5,183 workers commute to Mitchell from somewhere outside the city limits, while there are 5,646 workers who hold jobs and live in the city. The remaining 3,112 people included in the workforce population who reside in Mitchell commute to jobs outside the city.

“We’re uniquely positioned with many smaller communities surrounding us and relying on Mitchell as a regional hub. It is so important to maintain our foothold as a regional hub, because we command more sales tax than many other cities in the state similar in size, and that is how we provide all of our city services,” Ellwein said. “

Along with maintaining Mitchell’s status to serve as regional hub was an important shared goal among the participants and city leaders, Ellwein pointed to the action area that centered around embracing the Corn Palace and the tourism it brings.

Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said the Forward 2040 process provided a necessary road map for city leaders and community members to follow. Everson emphasized the importance for the community to retain and attract the industries in order for Mitchell to maintain serving as a hub for surrounding area towns. However, to do so, Everson said the city needs to provide more attainable housing options, which was an area of need identified in the planning process.

In response to the lack of affordable housing options in the city, the Mitchell Area Development Corporation (MADC) spearheaded an attainable housing project that is intended to bring around 90-plus homes to the east side of the city. Everson pointed to the MADC's housing development as a major outcome resulting from the planning process.

“This gave us specific goals and issues to address in the city to help keep things moving forward,” Everson said. "While there was some controversy with the housing project, it was great to see issues facing the community that were revealed through the Forward 2040 study being addressed."

Moving forward, Everson said he is committed to continue achieving the goals outlined in the Forward 2040 plan.

“COVID-19 aside, we are moving full steam ahead to make Mitchell a great place to live and work,” Everson said.