The Ottumwa Courier

February 15, 2013

New Main Street director: Listening is key

CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — The first thing Main Street Ottumwa’s new director wants to do is listen and build relationships throughout the community.

Bob Untiedt, Main Street Ottumwa’s new executive director, said one of the biggest things a community organization such as MSO needs to work on is “pulling people together to create a common vision.”

MSO board president Fred Zesiger said Untiedt’s work as a nonprofit executive and his experience in nonprofit board development, advocacy, leadership, fundraising and program management snagged the board’s attention.

Untiedt has previously served as the director of Food Reservoir, a project in Hiawatha that increased food distribution throughout the area; executive director of the Linn County Nonprofit Resource Center; executive director of Hollywood Interfaith, a faith-based community organization in Hollywood; and community organizer of the San Francisco Organizing Project.

With any economic development, Untiedt said someone needs to maintain enthusiasm within the community.

“From the conversations I’ve had with people here already and through some of the research I’ve done, there are lots of opportunities,” he said.

One project that particularly caught his eye was the Downtown Master Facade Improvement Program, which, if the city is awarded a $500,000 grant, would vastly improve the storefronts in the 300 block of East Main Street. In total, it’s a $1 million project that has pulled in funding from the city’s CIP, Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation and property owners in the designated block.

With the training and development experience Untiedt has had with nonprofit organizations, he said he ought to be able to move MSO forward.

“I’m pretty good at engaging people, volunteers,” he said. “But it also helps to have the perspective that I don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room.”

Especially at first, Untiedt said he will rely on MSO’s board and committees to teach him everything about the organization, about Ottumwa and about their goals and vision.

One idea Untiedt wants to implement is referring to volunteers not as volunteers but as leaders.

“All of these people bring their passions and their visions here,” he said. “There’s so much I can learn from them.”

There are three main goals Untiedt wants to focus on when he begins his position on Feb. 25:

• Gain an in-depth understanding of the visions and values of the MSO board.

• Manage the activities that have already been planned.

• Listen.

The third goal is probably the most important, he said, because while he has done some preliminary research on Ottumwa, “it’s limited.”

“I’m not an expert in Ottumwa,” he said. “I’ll be more successful if I’ve formed those relationships.”

But he’s not afraid of leading, he said.

“I’m not a Quaker in everything I do,” he said. “We do have to go and we’ve got to get things done.”

The perception Untiedt has gained of Ottumwa so far is that “it’s on the way back from where it’s been.

“I’m not comparing it to any other community or to what it used to be, but it sounds like it’s on its way back up,” he said.

Main Streets and downtowns across the nation are starting to dwindle, and some extremely small towns in Iowa are on the verge of disappearing, but Untiedt said that doesn’t have to happen here.

“My whole life I’ve heard this notion of a ‘brain drain,’” he said. “Iowa brings in a large number of people at the age of 18, but then those same people at 25 are the ones who leave.”

The goal for communities like Ottumwa is to figure out 1) how to create a diverse and healthy economy that creates the jobs young professionals want and 2) how to sustain a vibrant quality of life that makes them stay.

“Decent jobs are No. 1 in retaining young adults,” he said. “But second — and it’s a close second — is what is there to do for fun?”

From what he’s gathered so far, Ottumwa’s economic development organizations work well together, and those good working relationships will only help further each organization’s goals.

“It should be easy to work with other groups in economic development,” he said. “I’d love to see a Venn diagram of their interests and how they overlap.”