Vision Iola’s vision shared

By RICHARD LUKEN
Register Reporter

Register/Richard Luken
A crowd of Iolans listens to Carisa McMullen and David Toland speak Thursday about Vision Iola, a six-month planning process that looks to improve Iola’s parks and trails, signages and downtown business district.

About 20 years ago, a group of Iolans were looking to “Make It Happen.”
Their aim, to look at Iola through a different lens to determine the community’s strengths and weaknesses, sparked a renaissance of sorts. Civic involvement became in vogue.
“There was an energy, and it spread like wildfire,” recalled David Toland, who was a youngster when the Make It Happen campaign took place. “A lot of things got done; physical things.”
Graffiti-covered walls were repainted; the city embarked on a sidewalk replacement and downtown beautification effort; building owners on the square repainted their storefronts.
The effort coincided with business growth. Gates Corporation added a distribution center. Russell Stover Candies built its plant a few years later. The National Guard armory was expanded.
But Make It Happen eventually ran its course, and the energy for civic involvement has since ebbed.
Toland, now executive director of Thrive Allen County, is spearheading a similar process in 2010, dubbed Vision Iola.
“But in this case, the problems are a lot more serious,” Toland said, “and the stakes are a lot higher,” citing the city’s continuous loss of population. Since 1980, Iola has lost 19 percent of its population. Today it sits at 5,700.

TOLAND SPOKE Thursday evening at the kickoff meeting for Vision Iola, a six-month effort that will look at Iola’s identity and signage; its parks and trails system (including sidewalks); and its downtown business district.
Task groups will meet over the next three months, starting Feb. 4 to look at community identity and signage — what outsiders see when they first arrive in Iola.
In March, the focus shifts to downtown enhancement and ways to beautify and make the area even more pedestrian-friendly.
Starting April 15, the task force will look at Iola’s parks and trails, including uses of land for the hundreds of vacated properties from the 2007 flood. Sidewalk development also will be a vital component.
Toland touched upon the city’s inefficient sidewalk system.
Iolans will learn about various concepts, with their costs and potential funding avenues, to help prioritize what they would like to see to become once again a vibrant, healthy community.
The effort will conclude in late May.
Assisting the effort will be Carisa McMullen and Dale Stafford of Landworks Studio, Olathe, and what Toland hopes are hundreds of Iolans to share ideas.
Why the urgency?
Iola is a shrinking, and increasingly unhealthy, community, Toland said, noting the city’s and county’s steadily declining population since 1910.
What’s worse, Allen County ranks 94th out of 105 Kansas counties in terms of overall health.
“We’re dying too young,” Toland said. “We have too many people dying of preventable illnesses.”
“We know people are heavier than they’ve ever been,” McMullen agreed. “That’s not just a problem in Iola, but a problem everywhere.”
Making the city more user-friendly will encourage physically healthy habits such as walking, riding bicycles and generally getting out and socializing more, which is also good for one’s mental health, McMullen said.
“We want to make our city be a place where people want to get out and be more active,” Toland said.

THE KEY to Vision Iola’s success will be public participation.
“The most important part of the process is you,” McMullen said.
Those unable to attend the task force meetings are invited to provide ideas and input via the Internet at www.visioniola.com, where they’ll also be able to watch interactive presentations online, Stafford said.
“The Web site is a critical tool to getting you the information you need,” Stafford said.
But attendance at the meetings is critical, McMullen said.
“You can’t replace face time,” she said.
Jeff Bauer, Iola’s code enforcement officer, said Vision Iola will mesh with the city’s comprehensive plan, which last was updated in 2005. That plan is updated every 10 years.
Vision Iola is being funded in large part from a $50,000 donation from the Kansas Healthcare Foundation. Iola is the first small town to receive such funding.
“Iola is on the front edge” of a movement to prioritize healthy living, McMullen said. Such a direction is “exciting for the state of Kansas.”
With that in mind, community health will be given a high priority during the planning process, Toland and McMullen said.
For example, with better sidewalks, residents might be more apt to walk to various places around town instead of drive.
The Healthcare Foundation grant was matched by a $25,000 contribution by the city.
For more information about Vision Iola, visit the Web site or call Toland at 365-8128 or Bauer at 365-4903.