Great Places Update

Last month, I asked you to think about what makes Burlington a great place. I asked for your input via an online survey (find it here: to help me and the Great Places committee on which I serve, develop a vision for our community for the next couple decades. 

And since I hate filling out surveys then never hearing about the results, I thought it appropriate to give an update. Plus, I just couldn't come up with anything more profound to write about this month. When profundity proves elusive, default to what’s front-of-mind. 

In case you missed my column last month (I’ll try not to take it personally), I explained that the purpose of the survey was to identify what you think makes Burlington a “Great Place” to live. In addition, it will help create a vision and set of goals for future Burlington amenities and development. 

At the end of this process, city staff will apply to the state for an Iowa Great Places designation which will make it eligible for grants and various funding to make Greater Burlington even greater. A program of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Great Places program “seeks to cultivate the local character and authentic qualities of Iowa neighborhoods, districts, communities and regions. At its core, the program embraces ‘creative placemaking’, or the approach of building upon local creative and cultural assets to build more livable communities and vibrant public places.”

As of last count, we had received about 170 responses to the online survey. While that’s a far cry from the 1,000 I unreasonably hoped for, it’s a pretty good response rate by survey standards. And, for the most part, the demographics of respondents mirrored that of the community at large. Specifically, 90 percent of respondents were white (Burlington as a whole is 86.6 percent white, Des Moines County is 89 percent white); 55 percent of respondents were female (51.8 percent for Burlington, 50.9 percent for Des Moines County); 91 percent of respondents had completed high school (Burlington: 91.6 percent, Des Moines County: 92.2). 

The most glaring demographic disparity, though, is in the age spread of respondents. We only received two – yes, two whole responses from those between the ages of 18 to 24 while a full 56 percent of respondents were over the age of 55 and another 14 percent on top of that were 45 or older. For a survey contributing to a decades-long goal setting process, I think its important to get input from that younger demographic. The committee is now exploring ways to do that. Suggestions appreciated.

Now to the survey results. Collectively, respondents described their vision of our community as a vibrant, welcoming, inclusive, and growing river town destination steeped in arts and culture with unique character and thriving businesses. 

Or something like that. We still have some wordsmithing to do, but those words were the top ones chosen from the survey. 

For projects, the top priorities focused on improving and increasing public access to, and use of, the riverfront (like through park development), improved bike and walking paths around town, celebrating our ties to the railroad and to Aldo Leopold (like with museums), development around Snake Alley, replacing Cascade Bridge, and adding a STEM or life science museum and downtown boutique hotel. 

What’s especially great, I think, is that over 60 respondents gave their contact information and volunteered to participate in forums or focus groups to help further refine the priorities. If they haven’t already, they’ll be getting invites directly from the committee for just that. 

Which takes us to the next step in this process. We have these big lists of ideas and possible vision elements, now it’s time to narrow it down into a succinct vision statement and list of goals to include in the Great Places application. 

So, once again, here’s your opportunity to have a voice in your community’s future. On December 13, the committee plans to host in-person public forums to get more input and start narrowing down the focus. The forums will be held at the Burlington Public Library, one at noon and another at 5:00 PM. Everyone is invited whether you’ve participated in the survey or not. As I said before, this is your opportunity to influence our community’s trajectory, quite literally for decades to come. 

In the words of Marshall Mathers, “If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment…would you capture it, or just let it slip?”

Don’t let this moment slip. Take the time to give your input to help make our community even greater. The survey is still live at Better yet, come to one of the public forums at the library in a couple weeks. 

I hope to see you there.

This is a modified version of my monthly newspaper column that I write for the Burlington newspapers, The Hawk Eye and now, The Burlington Beacon