WHO IS THIS GUY?
By JARED STRONG
You can’t change someone’s mind if they already think like you.
That’s what led Zachary Mannheimer to leave New York a decade ago.
The East Coast liberal and actor came to Iowa to open a theater company after years of political, anti-war performances for like-minded audiences. People who already thought like him.
He helped create the Des Moines Social Club, an idea that grew from a theater company into a performance venue with performance classes and comedy, dance and food.
It’s located in a former fire department headquarters in downtown Des Moines.
Mannheimer, now 40, helmed the Social Club for eight years and became enamoured with rural America. He had gotten married and started a family, and he remembered his own upbringing in a rural area near Philadelphia — a place that was eventually swallowed by urban growth and became a suburb.
“I watched a rural community completely lose its identity,” Mannheimer said recently. “I didn’t want to see that happen again.”
So he shifted venues.
He became a community planner — an idea man who creates blueprints to lift rural communities from stagnation or, worse yet, their slow spirals into the drain.
Greene County economic leaders recently hired Mannheimer — he now works for McClure Engineering in Clive — to pitch some development ideas for their towns.
Ideas that range from mild to wild.
“He’s got more vision, nerve and development know-how than we’re used to seeing out here,” said Chuck Offenburger, a former columnist for the Des Moines Register who now is a community activist and runs the website Offenburger.com from his acreage south of Jefferson in Greene County. “But even more important, he seems to have a strong sense of what different approaches will work in different places.”
Try this one: An artist colony in Grand Junction, a town of about 790.
Mannheimer figures that it would cost about $10,000 to acquire the old, vacant buildings of downtown Grand Junction and perhaps another $1 million to refurbish them.
The artists — probably from Des Moines or Omaha — would live on the second floor of the buildings and have galleries below.
A wild idea.
“I was surprised when they said ‘Yes,’ ” Mannheimer said.
Those ideas — wild or not — come from the communities and the people who live there, he said. And Mannheimer has seen a bunch in the past two years. About half of his commissioned work is done in Iowa. He’s also done work in most of the states that surround this state, and more recently in the southern United States.
“The traditional economic model is throw a bunch of money at a company to get them to come here and create jobs,” he said. “I say, if you live in a state like Iowa with a declining population, it doesn’t matter how much you throw at a company, you need talented people and places for them to live.”
So the biggest ideas aren’t artist colonies in Grand Junction. It’s more important to create places where 20-somethings want to move.
Fresh beer from a brewery.
A walkable downtown.
“I love the downtown,” Mannheimer imagines a young professional saying. “I love the company, but I don’t think I’m going to meet a girl or a guy.”
Step one: Housing. Maybe the most important.
Small towns need to find a way to provide high-quality housing on the cheap. Mannheimer thinks a form of three-dimensional printing can help.
The use of a computerized machine to squirt concrete into a shape that forms a building is still in its infancy, but the cost savings can be phenomenal.
The machine can’t build a house or apartment building on its own — humans must plumb wires and install windows and doors, for example.
But look to a six-story apartment building in China that cost about $300,000 to build with the technology, Mannheimer said. That kind of cheap construction could provide quality housing for workforces that small towns desperately need to thrive and expand.
If you build it, they will come.
And they’ll pay for meals at the nice restaurants and drink beer from the local breweries. They’ll walk the downtowns and buy tickets to the latest “Star Wars” flick.
They’ll find love.
“So should we trust an East Coast liberal’s ideas on what will work here?” Offenburger said. “Sometimes it’s good to go get outside experts and see where they can lead us.”
A what in Grand Junction?!
Zachary Mannheimer, of McClure Engineering in Clive, is facilitator of Greene County’s Vision 2020, a planning process that involves public and private investment over 10 years.
Mannheimer unveiled his $46 million road map for Greene County this fall.
His proposals include:
• Modernizing the Greene County Community School District
• New aquatic center and sports complex in Jefferson
• Expansion of day care in Jefferson
• New brew pub/business-class restaurant in downtown Jefferson
• A 3D-printed housing development in Paton for its growing workforce
• Housing plan for Jefferson
• Grand Junction artists’ colony
• New trails system
The Vision 2020 committee envisions a mix of public and private funding to accomplish its goals, including a $6.2 million private capital campaign.
The largest of the projects is an expected $25 million for the Greene County Community Schools, a plan that includes the introduction of a career academy building in Jefferson for Fort Dodge-based Iowa Central Community College and repurposing of any vacated school buildings into housing.
The brew pub in downtown Jefferson could be located at 219 N. Wilson Ave., a former U-Haul building that at one time served as City Hall.