By Tony Hooker
Ben Franklin once said that “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
With that in mind, the city of Villa Grove set out to set a strategic plan for the next 8 to 10 years. The first step in the process was to contact the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies for assistance in formulating the plan, and CGS Assistant director Melanie Henriksen, along with Research Specialist Jeanna Ballard, were soon on the case.
Their first step was to conduct a series of meetings, both with citizens at large and with the council, mayor, clerk and department heads to find what issues are the most pressing.
I was able to sit down with Mel and Jeanna and get their thoughts on the importance of planning, their roles, and how they came to find themselves doing what they do.
What brings you to Villa Grove?
<MH> We are in Villa Grove to assist the community with the strategic planning process. We work for the NIU Center for Governmental studies and a big part of what we do is outreach, going into cities and helping them build and define their opportunities and really work with their community from the ground up, what they need and what they want. We engaged with Jackie (Athey) several months ago and we were able to make it happen, even with everything that’s going on.
Jeanna, how long have you been involved in this endeavor?
<JB>I’ve been involved since 2017, so three and a half years.
Is that part of your studies?
<JB> Is that what I went to school for? Yes, kind of. I went to school and got a Master’s degree in Public Administration. We learned about city management, policies and how to implement them, things like that.
How long has the Center been in existence?
<MH> We just celebrated our 50th anniversary. It was formed in 1969 for purposes just like this, to kind of merge education and research at the university with things that communities really needed, including strategic planning, economic development and all those things communities need assistance with. It came about because of the Public Administration department. Cities were asking professors for assistance and they didn’t have time to fully dedicate actual practice to going to the field.
Do they now work your work into their curricula?
<MH> Most definitely! Many of us, including our director, Greg Kuhn actually teach in the program, either in Public Administration or undergrad courses in Strategic Planning. We work with them to see what best practices are, and they reach out to us to see what some of the most applicable things they can use. We are sometimes guest speakers in their classes. It’s really a great synergy between the center and the Public Administration program.
It’s kind of the ideal for higher education, right?
<MH> It really is.
How long have you been involved with the center?
<MH> I’ve been with the center for 15 years. I come from Iowa and I had a lot of experience in government before I came here.
Where in Iowa did you grow up?
I grew up in Stout. It’s a little town of about 200 just outside of Cedar Falls. I went to the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls.
At least you didn’t say “Hawkeyes”! <laughing>
<MH> I actually love the Hawkeyes, and you can quote me on that, <laughing> but I love the Huskies more!
Jeanna, where did you grow up?
<JB> I grew up in Gilberts, Illinois. I got my undergrad and Masters at NIU. Then I went to China and got a second Master’s and then I was fortunate enough to start my career at NIU. I’m a pretty big Husky! <laughs>
As you mentioned last night, it seems like there are common themes in a lot of these planning sessions. How many of them have you done?
<MH> Oh, Geez! Between all of us, we’ve done at least 100 of them. As I mentioned, we do them for communities of all sizes, from 500 to 500,000 when we do county-wide projects. There are definitely commonalities between the smaller communities, but also between the 500 and the 500,000. We talk about operational vs. things that really need to be done. Infrastructure is a huge part of every community’s concerns. Small towns just don’t always have the budgets they need to get things done, which is part of the reason we come in. We help them prioritize, both their short term and their long-term goals.
<JB> Infrastructure is one. Downtown is another common theme, especially if it’s lacking. People want to have that destination, to draw people in. Community events is another one that is big, and we don’t really know why. <smiles> They can’t get enough of them! <laughs>
<MH> The idea of being able to age in place that’s come up is another one. Whether you’re 6 years old or 70 years old, how do you make the community somewhere that both want to be, and that’s a hard thing to do, whether you’re a smaller community that offers that quality of life, the small town living the lower housing prices, the fact that everyone knows each other, and they want to be able to do that. Senior housing, senior activities are really important, but then so are activities for the youth. How do you bring in programs that will not only bring in funding for your program, but that can make it a safe, fun activity for the youth and their families?
<JB> How do you make it so the young people who go away to college will want to come back? I want to mention that the themes are overarching, but it might be strategic for one community and operational in another. There is no hard and fast rule. There’s different funding, different resources and a different talent pool in each community.
Have you found a panacea in your experience? Are you going to tell us what to do, and we’ll do it, and everything will be better?
<MH> Oh, I see, you want us to create a utopia in one night, right? <laughs> We always get the question about “What’s the magic bullet?” One of things we stress is that we’re not here to solve all the problems today, tonight or even right away. We do have best practices that we share that can guide you, but we don’t want to put our fingerprint on your community. We let the process be a little bit more organic and then we share things that we’ve seen in other communities who are doing it well. There’s no perfect town. They all have their problems and issues, so what we do is share things that have worked elsewhere, and if it works here it’s amazing, and if it doesn’t, at least it was worth looking into. We like to keep the uniqueness in every community. Our job is to be facilitators, and to remain unbiased. We can come in and help work through a process that is very hard, because the people we’re working with have things that they care about greatly. Hopefully, we can come in and give that unbiased guidance. We’ll share anything that we see as best practices.
Taking it back a step, how did you come to do what you do?
<JB> That’s a great question. I’ll start this one. All my experience comes in government. I joined the MPA program back in 2014, and part of that is being placed in an internship, and so I worked in local government and really enjoyed it, but still being a nerd at heart, I still like academia and school and that’s how I got to go to Beijing for a year and study. When I came back, I heard about the Center through some people I knew and it’s a perfect mix getting the technical, applied experience while also getting the research piece. We’ve done health care research, we’ve done the environment, organizational studies.
What was your undergrad?
Poly Sci! Were you always drawn to that?
<JB> I was. Ever since 8th grade, I’ve always been into history, which sort of led me to politics. My whole family is in health care, so I’m not sure where that came from. <laughs> I’m the black sheep, I guess.
And Mel, how about you?
<MH> I was not always drawn into politics. Like a lot of younger people, you don’t really feel the weight and the breadth of what our government is, what our policy is. As a younger kid going into college, I wanted to do everything from Child Psychology to Biology, and then I had a Modern Presidency class with the most amazing professor at UNI, and it opened my eyes to what’s out there and how we can help people. I have a political science undergrad, like Jeanna. I worked for a governor in Montana, I worked for senators, and it just wasn’t my calling. I wanted to work on the policy side, and I was able to jump into a Master’s degree in Public Policy, which is a little different from the Public Administration degree, you get to do a bit more research rather than the application of policy. When I came to NIU, I was jumping head first into economic development, but the more I did that, the more I started to see the intersection between healthcare and economics and housing, and I thought “I want to do this more holistically,” and so I got involved in strategic planning with our boss, Greg Kuhn, and it all just sort of came together.
<JB> I spent some time in DC and I loved it, but for me, I realized that it was just a little too far from the people for me.
Has it changed? You’ve been involved for 15 years now. Are the issues becoming more complicated?
<MH> I think there’s a lot that’s still the same. However, just like every other part of society, people want consumable things right away. What we’ve noticed is that your plan has sort of become a marketing tool. Why would you want to come and live here, work here, visit here? Housing has changed as the demographics have changed. You have the population of the baby boomers. The conversation has shifted more to senior housing and activities, when years ago it was about how to attract young families. Demographics are a neat thing to look at for a community because they tell you exactly what’s going on, not what you think is happening or what you wish would happen. Communities need to follow their demographic trends and then adapt policies and services to fit what they find.
<JB> Technology has changed things a lot, as well. It’s all a way of consuming information, we call it the amazon effect. People are so used to getting what they want in a day. You can order something on your phone and track it, and that expectation is coming to government. People are expecting that from the government now. People want to be able to take a picture of a pothole and send it and track it (the city’s response) like a pizza. Expectations have changed in that regard.
<MH> Expectations of the community have changed, and that drives the council and staff. Expectations have changed a lot, and how do you adapt to those changed expectations given budget constraints and all of those concerns. That’s what we hope to help you navigate.
Do you see your role evolving further?
<MH> As strategic planners? Absolutely. The pandemic has shown us that things can be done differently, and in a better way than we used to do them. It’s been stressful to adapt, but it’s been fun learning all of this together with communities. I don’t ever think that’s going to change. We’re always going to be finding ways to help communities build capacity and do things in a positive way.
Jeanna, how about you? Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your career?
<JB> That’s a long time from now! <laughs> Yes, I’m sure I will be, in one shape or another. I don’t see myself going to a different field. I think the role will be similar, but again, with technologies evolving, we’ll have to adapt as well.
Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about?
<MH>I don’t think so. I think that the important part is that when we leave a community, we hope that we’ve left them on a better path, a path that’s clear for them and that they have the capacity to do a lot of things that we’ve discussed whether we’re here or not.