Jeff Davidson has approximately 18 months before he has to say goodbye to Jasper County and its nine communities that volunteered to participate in the Keep Iowa Beautiful-affiliated Hometown Pride Program.
Commissioned as a community coach about three-and-a-half years ago, Davidson was — and still is — tasked to coordinate with small towns for a total of five years to carry out county-wide project planning efforts, effectively growing community beautification, economic development and community development within Newton, Baxter, Prairie City, Monroe, Colfax, Lynnville, Sully, Kellogg and Mingo.
“What we’re all about is trying to make smaller towns as strong as they can be,” Davidson said.
Now entering his fourth year as a mentor to participating towns and their respected community leaders, Davidson has yet to think about what he intends to do after his term concludes with Jasper County’s Hometown Pride Program. However, an exit strategy will be implemented as he nears closer to his contract expiration. By that time, the former Iowa City economic development administrator will check if there are any lingering projects his town committees want to pursue.
“(I’ll) make sure that we’re kind of easing out my relationship and making sure we got the strong leaders involved to keep the program going,” Davidson said. “If none of the programs continue after I leave, then I failed. And I don’t want to fail. And I don’t think I’m going to fail. I think we’re going to have strong Hometown Pride committees.”
Sustaining the program’s impact and longevity within the nine participating Jasper County communities is a high priority for Davidson, whose intention has always been to guide and enable small towns to regularly and proactively seek out grants and find ways to collect funds for localized projects.
Through Davidson’s advice and training, local Hometown Pride committees should be able to preserve the program’s purpose and key values through emerging community leaders. One such leader to develop from the program is Baxter Mayor Gennypher Popenhagen, who also serves as the town’s Hometown Pride committee chairperson. Davidson said Popenhagen got her start in Hometown Pride. She had no major leading experience in Baxter prior to the program’s utilization in the town of about 1,100 people.
“She had never really been a part of any kind of formal organization and is such a natural leader,” he said. “I am so proud of her and so proud of what she was able to accomplish replacing a longterm mayor (Stephen Smith, who maintained the position for 12 years) and she is doing a fabulous job in Baxter. I really think her participation in Hometown Pride helped her grow and become that leader that’s now really benefiting Baxter.”
Popenhagen’s involvement with Hometown Pride predates her mayoral duties in Baxter. Describing herself as the type of person who tackles situations by “jumping in feet first,” Popenhagen volunteered herself as the Baxter Hometown Pride chairperson on day one. A decision which she said might have played a factor into being elected in November 2017, although she admitted she has participated in numerous committees since Hometown Pride.
“If no one else is going to step up, I absolutely will,” Popenhagen said of her experience volunteering as the Baxter Hometown Pride chairperson. “Everyone wanted to be involved in it, but no one really wanted to take charge of that leadership role. None of us knew what we were doing because it was a new committee, but (I said) I will do it … It’s an amazing program. Jeff (Davidson) is so wonderful to work with. If he doesn’t know the answer he always makes sure he finds the answer for us.”
Without Davidson as a coach, she added, committee members would not have known which grants were available to fund Baxter projects like the wayfinding signs, Main Street banners and the developments at Geise Park, which Copenhagen said has yet to be fully worked out and realized.
The first year of Hometown Pride, Davidson said, was a “very gratifying process” in that it took very little time for him and the participating communities to get to know each other. Although he was originally hired as a community coach for seven towns of Jasper County, Kellogg and Mingo joined later in 2017 and requested his guidance.
But no matter the town, Davidson was determined to not tell committee members what projects or ideas were important.
“We want that to come from within the community,” he said. “Each community is different … The nine towns I work with all have their own personalities and that’s kind of amusing but also kind of interesting. What it means is that my committees in each town are the ones that determine what we’re going to work on and what’s important.”
However, there is one common factor among all nine communities and their related projects: everything costs money.
“One of the things that I specifically have had as a task in each of my towns is getting people to be good grant administrators,” Davidson said. “What grants are we going to go after? Which ones are a waste of time? And which ones do we have a good chance of getting some money out of?”
Committee members were taught how to write clear and concise applications and follow up with grant administrators. If grant efforts are unsuccessful, Davidson said Hometown Pride volunteers have learned to follow up and politely find out the reasons why their community was not selected so that they can submit a stronger application next year.
“By year four this past spring, we had two really big grant cycles here in Jasper County,” he said. “One is Prairie Meadows and one is Jasper Community Foundation. We went after, I think, 17 grants altogether and got 15. They weren’t all full funding, but it maybe totaled $85,000 and enabled us to really start a lot of really cool projects.”
Smaller grant dollars can go a long way for small town Hometown Pride committees. For example, Davidson said Sully was able to apply for a Casey’s General Store grant by merely having one of the Midwestern gas stations in town. In return, Sully secured $5,000 for park improvements.
“Sully is a town of about 810 people, so $5,000 is a lot of money,” he said. “It’s a really good process (and) it’s a really fun process. What we generally do is put together a grant subcommittee that works just on grants; people who like that kind of thing. Certain people are better at composing narratives, certain people are better at financial calculations, certain people are better at just the nuts and bolts of actually filing applications ... My involvement is much less in year four than it was in year one and two because (committees are) really smart and they’ve gotten up to speed quick and they know how to put an application together.”
Davidson stressed “there is virtually nothing Hometown Pride does on its own.” Almost everything the program does is about developing partnerships with other organizations, more so in Newton than in the small towns. Cooperating with Des Moines Area Community College Newton Campus, the Newton Chamber of Commerce and Newton Main Street, among others, has allowed the program to help develop numerous projects.
“All these projects … none of them have been done in a vacuum by Hometown Pride, but Hometown Pride has been part of them,” Davidson said.
Newton is the biggest town of all nine Hometown Pride communities in Jasper County. Davidson said the program’s niche is towns smaller than 2,500 people.
“But we decided to take on Newton,” he said. “My boss was kind of interested in seeing how the program would work in a town of 15,500. Since then — in fact, just last year — we’ve added Clinton County. And Clinton is about twice the size of Newton. I think that’s a sign, to me, that Keep Iowa Beautiful believes in a medium-sized town.”
Projects currently under development in Newton include the construction of a possible TPI Composites wind blade statue, a partnership with DMACC to beautify a vacant green space in Legacy Plaza, wayfinding signs scattered throughout town and the development of a co-working space among other ideas.
Within the past year, Newton Hometown Pride has helped restore four downtown murals, including the 36x82 foot “Welcome to Newton” mural on the west side of the E-Clips building, a 16x35 foot American Flag painting on VFW Post 1655, the 30x135 Newton scenic farmland piece at Sersland Park and the 12x50 foot work featuring Newton stores on the west side of The Farmer’s Wife.
Bruce Showalter, chairperson of the Newton Hometown Pride committee, oversaw the completion of the mural project. Thinking back on Davidson’s coaching, which began in 2015, Showalter said all the projects have been positives for the community.
“With Jeff’s experience, he brought a lot to the team to be able to help guide us,” Showalter said. “The rest of the board is all volunteers. You always gotta have a lead person to really do stuff on the volunteer board. Not people who volunteer and come to the committee to talk, but actually implement those ideas.”
Luckily for Davidson and his nine Hometown Pride committees, there is still 18 months left for long-awaited projects to come to fruition before the coach passes the torch to his communities and its leaders to carry on the legacy and ideals of the program.
“I’m really looking forward to finalizing some things and getting some projects that are right now sort of in the planning stages off the ground,” Davidson said. “We got plenty of time to do a lot of cool stuff yet.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org