Des Moines Register. September 17, 2020

Help Stephens Auditorium, as well as other arts venues, get through the pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, recently predicted it will be at least a year before people feel comfortable returning to theaters without masks. That assumes there is an effective vaccine and a degree of immunity in the community.

Mid- to late 2021 feels like a long time to wait if you enjoy attending plays or performing on stages.

It feels like forever if your livelihood depends on planning such events during an infectious disease pandemic with no end in sight.

Now try being an arts venue affiliated with a university and overseen by the athletics department.

Enter Stephens Auditorium in Ames.

Stephens is in the news because Iowa State University athletic director Jamie Pollard felt compelled to suggest shuttering the auditorium was an option to address his department’s deficit. Other options include eliminating specific teams and cutting staff salaries.

Pollard later said he wanted to send a message to critics who chastised him for trying to allow 25,000 fans to congregate in the stands for a football game.

“I knew we weren’t going to shut down the performing arts center, but those people needed to understand the consequences, too,” he told

Rather than pitting sports against the arts, it’s more productive to ask: What can Iowans do to help ensure Stephens remains open?

The Register editorial board’s first thought was to suggest readers donate money to the entity. If each of us who have visited Stephens in the past 50 years sent a few bucks, we could help the organization get through this unprecedented time.

We called Stephens early Monday to ask about making donations.

Executive director Tammy Koolbeck said it was not so simple. Staff at the Iowa State Foundation told her that supporters should not set up GoFundMe accounts or other online donation drives to raise money, because of tax implications.

She said money donated through Stephens’ website link to the foundation could be used for programming costs like paying artists or subsidizing student tickets, but not for operational costs, like paying salaries, which is where money is needed.

Koolbeck said she was told that the foundation, which is the fundraising arm of the university, needed to set up a separate fund for Stephens so that the donor intent was clear.

“We have people who want to give us money, and we’d like to be able to accept it to keep our doors open,” she said.

An editorial writer then immediately contacted the foundation. On Monday evening, staff responded that the foundation had that day created a specific fund so donors can directly support operations and facility needs at Stephens.

“The Stephens Auditorium Fund will help provide support through this particularly difficult COVID-19 pandemic environment and offer long-term opportunities for the development of a vibrant district around the Iowa State Center, which includes Stephens Auditorium,” according to a statement from the foundation

That’s progress.

Stephens needs all the help it can get.

Like other arts venues, it has canceled and postponed shows, which reduces revenue. It has partnered with other organizations to facilitate safe, physically distanced events. Staff have taken pay cuts, and they’re doing furloughs.

Some performance venues, especially those struggling before the pandemic, may not survive upcoming months.

Iowans can help them stay afloat by donating money directly, donating refunds for previously purchased tickets and attending outdoor performances.

A changing and troubled economy is putting cultural treasures, including Stephens Auditorium in Ames, at risk. Working together, we can help them though to the other side of this pandemic.

Which is the message the ISU athletic director should have sent in the first place.

Donors can give to the Stephens Auditorium Fund by visiting


Quad-City Times. September 13, 2020

A housing crisis in the quad-Cities

In the age of coronavirus, there are few things as comforting as home.

It is where we sheltered this spring when the economy was largely shut down.

It is where many of us schooled our kids.

It is where, still, many are working as we wait for the risk to pass, or at least lessen.

Unfortunately, too many people in the Quad-Cities can’t count on this basic necessity of life.

As a report last month made clear, nearly 12,000 extremely low-income Quad-City households can’t reasonably afford a roof over their heads. They’re the people paying nearly a third of their income on housing costs. What’s more: Nearly 10,000 households in our community are spending at least half their incomes on housing.

This burden leaves little else for other necessities, like food, medicine, car repairs and the like.

Consider this: An affordable one-bedroom apartment for a single adult working full time and making $9 an hour, would be $468 a month, according to the Quad-City Housing Cluster. But the fair market rent for such an apartment in the Quad-Cities is $648.

Even before the pandemic, wages here weren’t rising fast enough to keep up with rents. But as Leslie Kilgannon, director of the Scott County Housing Council, put it, “the appearance of an international pandemic has really laid bare some of the inequities around (affordable housing).”

The economy has improved since the shutdown, but joblessness is still far too high, while others have seen their hours cut.

The report that the housing cluster presented, called “Silos to Solutions,” laid out the problem, as well as a 10-year vision to create more than 6,600 affordable housing units through new construction, rehabilitation, increased subsidies and other steps.

This plan is aimed at helping the lowest income households in the Quad-Cities. Future efforts will focus on households that are more fortunate, but still qualify as low-income.

As this report made clear, there is a housing crisis in this community. It is most acutely felt by those living it. But it’s a crisis for all of us; if our community is to grow, we need adequate housing.

The cluster proposed a series of steps to tackle this problem.

Some of it, simply, comes down to money; among the recommendations is essentially a doubling in the Local Housing Trust Fund, which will require more from local governments and private sources. We believe the states of Iowa and Illinois must up their game, too.

Existing housing stock can also be stretched with a greater financial commitment to abating lead paint hazards, an area our community has struggled with recently.

Other options could mean changes in policies, like asking (or requiring) more of housing developers, educating and stabilizing at-risk households, lowering eviction rates through more effective mediation and changing zoning laws in order to encourage unique housing options.

One option in vogue these days: tiny homes. These homes vary in size, but the models we’ve seen range in size from 250- to 400-square feet. Such homes have been proposed in Davenport, and just days ago the director of a Detroit-based social service agency talked about the concept at a meeting in Rock Island County.

Last year, Davenport changed its zoning code to get rid of minimum structure and lot size requirements, which can be an impediment. That’s good.

In Rock Island, there is a proposal to change its code to cut its minimum house size from 900 square feet to 400 square feet. The change isn’t so much aimed at luring tiny homes, but a broader effort to increase the city’s supply and variety of housing options over the long term.

We believe these are positive steps, but they are only part of a series of changes required to improve the area’s range of housing options. Specifically whittling the deficit in affordable housing for the neediest among us means that developers, financial institutions and regulators need to think creatively, with an eye toward equity and inclusion.

One out of every eight Quad-City households has an income less than 30% of the area’s median, and about two-thirds of those see half their income go to housing costs.

Think about that for a moment.

That is far too many people paying far too much to be able to afford one of life’s basics.

An affordable place to live is the foundation for so many other things in life. With it, comes opportunity. Without it, the chance at a better life is often out of reach.

We’re told working groups are being formed to try to move from the report toward solutions. We encourage every person, every institution, in our community to envision ways to get involved and help. The coalition is already composed of an impressive list of governments, financial institutions, foundations, neighborhood groups, social service agencies and others. But tackling this problem will take the dedication of the whole community and a commitment to chart our progress and demand more when it is lacking.

The housing cluster aptly concludes its report by saying, “with this vision now ready, the real work begins.”

Fort Dodge Messenger. September 18, 2020

New academy provides gateway to good jobs

An academy that opened late last year to teach welding and the skills needed to work in manufacturing is on track to become a key element in training the region’s future workforce.

It’s called the Northwest Iowa Career Academy, and it’s located in Laurens.

The academy was created through a unique partnership that includes Iowa Central Community College, the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission, area public schools and local businesses. It provides career and technical training for high school students and adults. Integrated manufacturing and welding are the primary subjects taught there.

The academy opened in September 2019.

Since it debuted about a year ago, students have recognized the value of the training offered at the academy. That was clearly demonstrated when the High School Apprenticeship Program recently started up with more than double the number of expected students. Eight students were expected; 20 showed up on the first day of the program.

”The interest has been tremendous,” Emily Williams, the marketing coordinator for the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission, told The Messenger.

Those 20 students are high school juniors starting a two-year program. When they graduate, they will have 30 college credits and will be able to enter the workforce.

Programs like those offered at the Northwest Iowa Career Academy are vital to providing skilled workers that area businesses need.

We believe high school students and adults should consider the kind of career training offered at the academy. There are lots of rewarding – not to mention good-paying – jobs that can be attained without a bachelor’s degree and the academy can be the gateway to those jobs.

We are fortunate to have far-sighted leaders at Iowa Central and in the Pocahontas County Economic Development Commission who have worked with local schools and businesses to create this academy.