JEFF SCHOTT Institute of Public Affairs director guides devastated Iowa town toward better future.
Few cities have endured what small-town Postville has gone through.
In May 2008, federal officials arrested 15 percent of the town’s population as undocumented aliens; then another 15 percent left of their own accord. The town’s major employer collapsed under a pile of legal allegations, leaving behind unemployment, broken families, and uncertainty.
“People told me not to take the job, that Postville is a lost cause, and just pull the plug,” says Jeff Schott, director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in the University of Iowa College of Law. “But I found the people there weren’t prepared to pull the plug.”
The IPA is a UI service that acts as a consulting firm of sorts for small towns and county governments in Iowa, helping them to develop goals and strategies and make better futures for themselves. If any Iowa town needed that kind of help, Schott thought, it was Postville.
The town’s challenges are legion, and well documented. The home of the Agriprocessors Kosher meat slaughterhouse, the once-typical Iowa farm town of 2,500 was populated with Orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, Latinos, Asians, Africans, and Eastern Europeans who came to work there. That cultural mix brought a thriving economy, but turned the town into a patchwork of cultural and ethnic groups that were suspicious of each other and often at odds.
Helping Postville would be a challenge—the town all but stopped when federal officials raided the town—but Schott felt it was the least he could do for a part of the state that treated him so well. A native of Utica, N.Y., Schott graduated from SUNY–Albany and came to The University of Iowa for graduate study. After receiving his master’s degree in political science in 1974, he returned to his hometown but soon realized he missed Iowa.
“My wife and I had just started a family and we quickly decided we’d rather raise our children in Iowa than upstate New York,” he says.
A series of planning jobs followed for the City of Muscatine, City of Marion, and the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, until 1986, when he settled into a 20-year run as the city manager of Marion. His tenure in Marion started at the height of the farm crisis; his job was to figure out how to hold the city together. By the time he left, Marion was a boomtown, one of the fastest growing cities in Iowa, and his job was to plan the growth.
After 20 years, he decided it was time for something new, so when he was approached about taking over the IPA, he jumped at the chance. The IPA, founded in 1949, is held in high regard across the state for the services it offers, Schott says. It helps local government leaders identify their goals and priorities, and hosts the annual Iowa Municipal Managers Institute, the largest municipal managers conference in the state, every March at the Iowa Memorial Union.
Schott has crisscrossed the state in the three years since taking over the IPA. It’s meant a lot of miles on the road and a lot of frayed highway maps, until his son gave him a GPS navigation system as a gift last year.
The job helps Schott give back to his adopted state with better, more efficient, more responsive local governments. That’s one reason why he agreed to help Postville find a new course for itself.
Starting in April, Schott, along with representatives from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the office of Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, met with a committee of local leaders specially chosen from a broad cross-section of a unique population made up of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hasidic Jews, Eastern Europeans, and others. Getting everyone to speak the same language proved to be a challenge, as Postville’s residents speak eight languages.
Representatives from nearby farms, towns, and community and economic development organizations joined the committee for seven meetings over the next four months. Schott helped the leaders find common values, hash out a future for the city, and put together a step-by-step plan that leads to that future.
Among the town’s priorities: a need to diversify and strengthen the economy, improve its housing stock, improve public safety, and knock down ethnic and cultural walls that caused so much tension in the past. Interestingly, he said diversity was identified as one of the community’s values and biggest strengths—a marked contrast to Schott’s earlier work in Postville, when ethnic tensions had polarized the town.
“It used to be that a lot of people thought it would be better if ‘they’ all went away and the town was like it was before,” he says. “Now, everyone sees the effects the raid has had on the local economy and on the town—all the closed stores and the empty houses—and they realize how necessary they all were to the success of Postville.”
The community started implementing their new strategic plan this summer, and Schott says he will continue to check in occasionally and be available if the town needs help. They’ll have to wait in line, though. This is a municipal election year, so he’ll be working with dozens of towns across Iowa with new mayors and council members who will need his help with new priorities, new goals, and new strategic plans—and giving his GPS a workout.
by Tom Snee; photo by Kirk Murray
December 21, 2009