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Destiny plan in hand, Stier takes Partnership chair


Mary Stier visited Des Moines a few times back in the 1980s and always drove away with the same impression: It felt like a big city – “but there was a quietness to it.” When she moved here in 2000 to become the publisher of The Des Moines Register, “I was blown away by the level of activity and growth,” she said.

She moves into a key position for continuing that momentum this year as chairwoman of the Greater Des Moines Partnership board of directors for 2005. Stier succeeds J. Barry Griswell, chairman and chief executive officer of Principal Financial Group Inc., in the post.

Griswell made a course correction for the Partnership a year ago. Even as construction continued on downtown projects, he said, it was time for “a more holistic view . . . that includes trails, art, human services.”

Stier said she has no plans to spin the wheel in a different direction. “One of the great things about the Partnership is that it has the Project Destiny document,” she said during a joint interview with Martha Willits, president of the Partnership. “In a lot of places, when a new chairperson comes in, they say, ‘OK, now we’re going to go in this other direction.’ But with this vision on hand, our mission is to make sure all of the pieces come together.”

As publisher of Central Iowa’s biggest daily newspaper, Stier will have to navigate a course that involves both objective journalism and civic boosterism. “When I was asked to chair the board, I was very clear that my first role is as publisher,” she said. “I have told the newsroom to cover the Partnership as they always have, and if there’s ever a conflict, I will remove myself from those Partnership decisions.”

She said that there “may be times when the editorial board will weigh in” on Partnership issues.

She found herself in a similar position while she was the publisher of the Rockford [Ill.] Register Star – like The Register, part of the Gannett Co. Inc. chain. There she served on the Council of 100, the community’s economic development arm.

Willits said she doesn’t see Stier’s dual role as a problem. “We’ve always had involvement with people who are working to develop the community,” Willits said. “We can’t have the leadership we need without careful separation” of participants’ private and public interests.

The Register plans to start a Web site this spring that will list local activities, and an article in the paper described it as coming “in response to the Partnership’s desire for a central location listing a range of activities for all ages and interests.”

Willits said, “The Partnership always hopes to find products that will suit our needs; the Register was creating this site, and it looks as if it will meet our desires” for improved communication.

Stier said the Register is creating the site to serve a need in the marketplace, the Partnership has not put any money into the project and “when the Partnership voted to endorse this, I was not a part of the discussion or the vote.”

Communication among the groups working on Project Destiny components is a critical area for 2005, Stier and Willits said. “We have brainstormed with Susan Ramsey [communications director for the Partnership] on ways to improve communication,” Stier said. “We want to ask for more feedback and utilize online features far more than we have.”

Willits added: “Last year, our plan called for us to find partners. We did that and more. Now we have to find ways to get the different groups to perform as planned. This is a year when we have to get very tactical.”

Both women said all phases of the Project Destiny plan are on or ahead of schedule. The major components include:

Improving the quality of life. This includes projects such as the Principal Riverwalk, which is already under construction, and other elements of The Des Moines Riverfront Master Plan.

It also calls for creating a regional arts, culture, science and recreation district by July 1. Current efforts include the realignment of local government contributions to Bravo Greater Des Moines and lobbying the Legislature to expand the hotel/motel tax. Willits said the Iowa League of Cities is leading the lobbying effort.

Regarding a push to connect recreational trails, Willits said an eight-county trail authority has “stepped up and become stronger.”

Transforming the human services delivery system. Willits said a plan to create and empower a Greater Des Moines Human Capital Council is “probably ahead of schedule.” A three-year demonstration project, expected to help 200 families with “Circles of Support,” has reached 50 families since it was launched in April 2004.

Griswell is putting time into “a business plan to put every child in preschool,” Willits said.

Streamlining and reinventing local government. This idea sustained a setback when voters rejected a merger of the Des Moines and Polk County governments last fall. However, Willits said regional authorities are making progress on the elimination of duplicated services and called such bodies “as good as governments” in that effort.

Engaging the community in lifelong learning. The opening of the John and Mary Pappajohn Education Center represented a major step forward; this component carries a timeline of five years.

Establishing new shared revenue source for local governments. A committee of mayors and council members from Central Iowa local governments has finished a plan for establishing a metropolitan local option sales tax, Willits said. “It’s a 2005 or 2006 issue,” she said. “The time frame is still open to discussion.”

In addition to her job as publisher of the Register and chair of the Partnership board, Stier serves as senior group president of the Gannett Midwest Newspaper Group and as a Drake University trustee. She and her husband have two children in school here.

“I’m lucky to work with extraordinary people at the Register,” Stier said. “With their support, I’m able to take on more responsibilities. And my family adds so much heart to my life – without that, I couldn’t do what I do.”

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