Big night, bigger ideas

Published 10:15 am Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mark Tuma relates an idea near the stage about more traffic law enforcement during the Big Night of Ideas Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn. -- Eric Johnson/

400 people attend event, share plans to better Austin

Austin residents had plenty of ideas Wednesday night. Big ideas.

The “Night of Big Ideas” put on by Vision 2020 was by all accounts a success as more than 400 people filled the Holiday Inn throughout the night, giving ideas and discussing city issues.

“This is beyond our expectations,” said Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, executive director of United Way of Mower County.

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People from all walks of life had their say as Vision 2020 volunteers collected sheet after sheet of ideas. One of the most common ideas was a youth center where young residents could hang out.

“We need that one place we can go,” said Diane Ramirez, Vision 2020 volunteer.

The idea came up at more than a few tables, as residents could see the value of getting teens and children active in town.

A table discusses ideas for submitting during the Night of Big Ideas Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn. - Eric Johnson/

“It could be a place for teens through 20 to go where they’re not hassled,” said Yesenia Mendoza, Riverland Community College adviser.

Other ideas included fixing Oak Park Mall’s parking lot, as well as encouraging more businesses to come to Austin.

“Everybody wants better shopping,” Mayor Tom Stiehm said. “Better shopping and more restaurants.” Stiehm said he has heard ideas about bringing more businesses to Austin at every Vision 2020 function.

Many people want to encourage local business as well, especially the North Main Street project.

“It would make the whole Main Street look more coordinated, more welcoming,” said Judy Gerlach, co-chair of the Philomathian Books volunteers.

There were ideas on environmental practices and promoting the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center as well. One resident wanted public school classrooms to introduce things like composting and sustainable practices as small parts of the curriculum.

“It’s important to be implementing this,” said Gabrielle Orfield.

Vision 2020 volunteers said they had 1,500 ideas as of Wednesday morning and hope to have 3,000 ideas by Oct. 14, the idea submission deadline.

“I don’t see how we couldn’t have 3,000 ideas by then,” said Laura Helle, Hormel Historic Home director.

Once all the ideas are collected, a committee will narrow the ideas to the top 100. The community will then vote to narrow the list to 30.

Next, the committee takes over again, finalizing the top 10 ideas by March 1, 2012. From there, the group will begin working to make the ideas a reality by 2020.

The idea for Vision 2020 stems from a meeting with city officials of Dubuque, Iowa, in February. Austinites learned how Dubuque went from having the highest unemployment rate in its county to being named the best small city to raise a family by Forbes Magazine and was ranked seventh in the country for job growth by, all in a little more than a decade.