Carrying out the vision: Greg Siems ready to ‘guide the ship’ as Vision 2020’s new director

Published 2:20 pm Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Greg Siems has taken up the reins of Vision 2020, taking over the spot vacated by Laura Helle. Eric Johnson/

Greg Siems has taken up the reins of Vision 2020, taking over the spot vacated by Laura Helle. Eric Johnson/

As Greg Siems takes the helm of Vision 2020, he’s looking to carry on the momentum that’s built since 2011.

Greg started last Monday as director of Vision 2020, replacing Laura Helle after she took a job at Riverland Community College. While Greg is excited to bring a fresh perspective to the community betterment group, he’s not looking to set a new course.

“It’s a natural point to stop and reevaluate,” Greg said. “Laura did a fantastic job setting us on the right course, and I suppose it’s my job to guide the ship into shore.”

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In his first official week on the job, Greg worked to begin better familiarizing himself with the progress and status of Vision 2020’s committees.

Vision 2020 is a grassroots movement that formed in Austin in 2011. It features hundreds of volunteers engaged with a variety of community organizations including government, business, nonprofit and education to improve the quality of life by 2020 and beyond.

As he looks ahead, Greg is excited to bring his skills to a community he’s no stranger to.

Just like home

Greg has lived in Austin a little less than a year, but the community has felt like home for longer than that.

Greg moved to Austin this spring when his wife, Mandie, got the chance to return to her hometown as a communications associate at The Hormel Institute.

Even before that, Greg visited Mandie and her parents, Todd and Maria Mickelson, several times for holidays and on breaks from school.

“They were so welcoming to me into their family,” Greg said. “It just made me feel at home and made me feel like Austin was kind of my second home. That’s why I feel like less of an outsider now coming into this job because I’ve been around town, met people over the years and have read about what Vision 2020 has been doing.”

Greg grew up in Iowa, where he played many sports while attending Iowa City West High School. His family lives in North Liberty, Iowa.

Though he continued playing baseball at Luther College, he said he most enjoys playing basketball and may look for more opportunities to play in town, and he’s an avid Minnesota Timberwolves fan. He also played piano and was a percussionist in the marching band and concert band.

But Greg remembers always being interested in books and learning about a variety of topics. Greg enjoys reading and one of his favorite authors is George Orwell, but not just his well known books, as he said he loves works like “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “Homage to Catalonia.”

After graduating from Luther, he went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame in August 2015.

Because he loves ideas and sharing ideas, Greg planned to pursue a career as a professor or teacher. He worked as a teaching assistance at Notre Dame and loved working with students, but he didn’t like the academic research side of being a professor, which was often abstract and theoretical. He wanted a job where he could more easily see the fruits of his labors.

“I wanted to know that my work was making a difference,” he said.

Plus, he and Mandie wanted to move back to the Midwest after they married in June 2014, and landing a professor position can be competitive and require a move across the country.

Greg Siems, the new director of Vision 2020, talks about some of the most important important things Vision 2020 is working towards. Eric Johnson/

Greg Siems, the new director of Vision 2020, talks about some of the most important important things Vision 2020 is working towards. Eric Johnson/

At home in Austin

When they looked to move closer to Austin, Mandie got the job at The Institute, and they found a home in southwest Austin. The Siems were looking to get involved in the community, which is why Greg jumped at the chance to lead Vision 2020.

“This really seemed like the absolute perfect fit when we saw that there was going to be a new director,” Mandie said.

Mandie, a 2008 Austin High School graduate, met Greg at Luther, where she graduated in 2012.

She described her husband as someone who is serious and professional, but also very good under stress. She expects him to bring a calming presence, noting he’s someone who works well under stress.

“I think it’s really just what we hoped for and you can tell that his interests are in community development and community betterment,” Mandie said.

Even when she was away from Austin, Mandie kept tabs on all that was happening with Vision 2020 and with her hometown.

With an interest in the arts, Mandie has participated in local theater productions and will perform in Handel’s “Messiah” with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in December.

“We really do like to be involved,” she said.

Greg and Mandie volunteer a few times a month on the cat side of the Mower County Humane Society, and have their own rescue cat, Sagwa — who Greg thinks was named after the TV show “Sagwa, the Chinese Cat” — who they adopted from a shelter when they lived in South Bend, Indiana.

But overall, the Siems are happy to be back in Austin.

“I don’t think we could have asked for a better situation,” Greg said.

As the transplant into Austin, Greg described it as a unique community with a diverse set of residents from varying backgrounds bringing their own perspective to Austin organizations. He sees that as one of the reasons Austin could be primed for growth in the future.

“It just seems like such a welcoming place, that people really care and want to get to know you,” Greg said.

Getting up to speed

Early in his role with Vision 2020, Greg’s key goals will be getting up speed on the projects, and he joked that several people have already used the metaphor that it will be like drinking from a fire hose.

Since Greg and Mandie have kept tabs on Austin news since before moving to town, Greg is familiar with the projects. However, he says he doesn’t have the intricate knowledge of the projects that someone like Helle had.

“It takes a while to get up to speed, because these are plans and negotiations and discussions that have been going on for months if not years on a lot of these projects,” he said.

Helle was with Vision 2020 from the start in 2011, so she knew all the projects inside and out and was involved in their development. Greg has been in touch with Helle and said she has been very helpful, telling him her door is always open to help. He also credited Interim Coordinator Quin Brunner for investing himself in the projects and helping with the transition.

Despite being new, Greg hopes to turn that into a positive as he can bring a fresh viewpoint and new set of ideas.

“As someone who wasn’t with it from the beginning, maybe I can try to provide a little bit of that outsider’s perspective,” he said.

Greg said his political science background gives him a broad perspective and a strong set of skills to a job that will touch on a variety of issues and topics.

“It’s very challenging but exciting at the same time,” Greg said. “You don’t get bored for sure.”

He’ll continue meeting with community and Vision 2020 committee leaders to learn and get feedback, while also looking through Vision 2020’s files.

“I’m working as hard as I can to get caught up to speed and just learn as much as possible as fast as I can,” he added.

“For me it’s just a matter of diving in and trying to absorb it all,” he added.

Greg is working to get acclimated with the projects, especially ones like the Community Rec Center Committee, Gig Austin and the Waterways Committee, though he said all the projects are important.

Along with partnering on the Cedar River Watershed District’s Accelerated Results Plan to complete 25 water retention projects for flood and water quality issues, volunteers are also working to attain state bonding dollars for recreational enhancements on Ramsey Dam and the Fourth Avenue Northeast Dam.

With the rec center, discussions are ongoing about the downtown Austin Municipal Plant site being the potential landing spot for the center, but Greg said the discussions are complex with many moving parts and groups involved.

But another part of the rec center project should be going up soon. Austin Public Schools and Vision 2020 partnered to bring a seasonal dome to the Wescott Field Complex, and it should going up in a few weeks when the school district gets all the equipment.

Gig Austin could also be a complex process, as the project would cost an estimated $32.9 million, but state funding sources have been hard to come by.

“There’s a lot of need, but not a lot funding going around,” Greg said.

Gig Austin leaders have gone to Austin City Council, Austin Public Schools, The Hormel Foundation and the Mower County Board to gauge interest and request funding. The council spoke favorably in initial talks, but haven’t voted on providing funding, while the county board voted down a funding request.

Greg said they’d like to gain a more firm grasp on which groups would or wouldn’t support the effort.

“We can’t proceed, obviously, without the funding for such a big project,” he said. “We want to make sure we’ve got everybody on board for that.”

They also want to demonstrate the impact that type of project would have on the community. It’s designed to be state of the art and future proof — something they can grow off of for several years to come.

Carrying out the vision

A subtle change to Greg’s role shows a bit of how Vision 2020 is moving forward. Rather than keeping Helle’s title of director of vision creation, Greg will simply be Vision 2020’s director.

To Greg, that’s because the vision — the groundwork — is already in place for Vision 2020. The focus is now on executing it and guiding the projects to fruition.

“The vision’s been created, we’re just trying to carry it out now,” Greg said.