Your Town Now: The Millar's Tale

Give John Millar this much: The man doesn’t know when to quit.

Unfortunately for us, Millar–the business-development consultant recently hired by the city and the university–also doesn’t know much about working with college-town audiences. Which is a shame, seeing as the city’s Planning & Community Development Department, The Daily Iowan and Millar himself tout his expertise in developing business in college towns.

The August YTN examined Millar’s track record and found it wanting, but that didn’t stop Millar from drafting a survey and blasting it to the entire university community. I won’t spend a lot of time describing my opinions about the survey; you should see it for yourself. My own misgivings led me to contact some city officials about how the survey came to be and how we got mixed up with Millar in the first place.

University towns are odd ducks when it comes to the census. Most students report little or no income, but as a stroll through the Ped Mall on a Saturday night will tell you, students have decent chunks of disposable income. A scholarship here and a student loan there might cover your basics, leaving you dirt-poor on paper, but still honorably able to blow off some steam and some dollars when the weekend hits.

Bare-bone census data, then, doesn’t really capture the true number of consumer dollars being spent by residents of our fair city. So Millar’s approach is to look at the census figures for students’ hometowns and work them into a composite intended, as the city’s economic development coordinator, Wendy Ford, told me in a recent phone call, to enhance the city’s pitch to businesses that might want to set up shop here.

This isn’t really about more accurate demographics, and it’s not about measuring actual levels of disposable income. If it was, it would identify levels of student aid–scholarships, loans, things known to the university. It would factor in known and estimated room and board costs and use those to adjust the census’ official numbers. This is about identifying spending habits and presenting the most impressive numbers possible to potential retailers. That’s why the study presumes that a student from, say, West Des Moines would be most gratified if Iowa City looked like West Des Moines.

But West Des Moines, we ain’t. For that matter, we’re not Coralville, either, and competing directly with a local mall is a horrible idea. For better and for worse, we’re our own weird animal here in the People’s Republic of Johnson County. For now.

The survey, which was reviewed by university and city officials, is designed to complement this bean-counting with a look at what people in the community really want. It suggests that this might include a national book store chain, never mind Prairie Lights, Iowa Book & Supply and the many terrific used-book stores near downtown. Or a children’s apparel store, never mind that most of the folks being surveyed haven’t yet had kids. The sorts of places that might look good in, say, West Des Moines.

Millar’s game is becoming depressingly clear. So why are we trucking with the guy in the first place?

Turns out that some university officials met Millar last year at a conference in California. They were impressed enough to invite him to speak earlier this year to a group of townies and gownies. The hook firmly set by now, they put him up for a couple of days. During his stay, Millar met City Manager Tom Markus, who appears to be the city’s prime mover on the Millar front.

Interestingly, no official record of Millar’s visit, or of Markus’ subsequent plans to hire him, seem to have been retained. What we do know is that, after Markus met Millar, Councilors Connie Champion and Mike Wright brought Millar’s consultation and its $50,000 price tag up for a vote. That was May 17. The motion was deferred until June 7, when Councilors Regenia Bailey and Susan Mims brought an identical proposal up for consideration … identical but for the price tag, which had increased to $55,000. The measure passed unanimously.

What is to be Done?

If university officials buy some snake oil at a conference, that’s one thing. If the former city manager of an astonishingly wealthy suburb likes the idea of building up corporate retail in a comely college town, he could just be playing to his strengths. But when that town’s city council endorses and funds those little hyperventilations, someone’s dozing at the switch.


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The trouble here, in other words, isn’t that the university set seized on a bad idea, or that Markus jumped at the possibility of adding a little something to his come-to-Iowa-City pitch. After all, if you’re not coming up with a few bad ideas a month to go along with all of your good ones, you’re probably not thinking hard enough. The problem is that the city council let the university and Markus run with a bad idea.

Fortunately, this is election season and four of the council’s seven seats are up for grabs. The primary for at-large seats will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 11; the general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Here’s who’s running:

Regenia Bailey’s District C seat is being contested by former councilor Jim Throckmorton and…that’s it.

Ross Wilburn’s District A seat is being contested by Professor of Family Medicine Rick Dobyns and KCJJ Owner Steve Soboroff.

Two at-large seats are in play. One is currently held by Mayor Matt Hayek, who hopes to remain on the council; the other is being vacated by Mike Wright. Along with Hayek, the contenders are:

Recently-minted MFA and PATV employee Josh Eklow
Rockwell Collins Project Manager Richard Finley
Developer and Realtor Mark McCallum
Wake Up Iowa City Owner and urban chicken champion Jarrett Mitchell
Student and 21-ordinance bemoaner Raj Patel
Zoning commission member Michelle Payne

The primary will knock this list down to four; the general election sends two of those to the council.

Read up on ‘em, talk with your friends about ‘em, inform your opinions of ‘em. And if you’d like to learn anything right from the horse’s mouth, contact information for each candidate is available at I’ll be devoting most or all of the November column to the general election.

Off Yr Duffs!

Wendy Ford heard you when you barked about Millar’s survey. When I spoke with her about the latest flap, she stressed, as if to everyone who’s posted an online comment regarding the matter, that her office is not looking to flood downtown with big-box national retailers.

Early returns on the survey, Ford related, seemed to indicate that folks don’t see much need for a national bookstore outlet downtown. And when the survey mentions Urban Outfitters, that’s just a way of describing a type of store. Shorthand for Urban Outfitterishness, for “faux-rebellious clothing store whose CEO has contributed lots of money to Rick Santorum,” not any sort of indication that the responder wants an actual Urban Outfitters right smack downtown. The study might help, she suggested, to bring in regional business: A hip new business in Cedar Rapids might want to expand here; an outfit in Davenport might want to relocate.

It’s great to hear that some folks are speaking up about the Millar mess and that some important people are listening. But that gives us half the picture: It tells us what some rightly outspoken Iowa Citians don’t want.

That’s not enough. Tell me that you live in a town without an Urban Outfitters and I don’t know if you live in Iowa City or Muleshoe, Texas. The full response includes local businesses: supporting them, yes, and also developing them.

So I asked Ford about another effort in which her office and Tom Markus’ are involved: CoLab, a co-working facility due to open soon. Co-working scales down the cost of freelancing and entrepreneurship by inviting people to work independently in a shared space.

CoLab is intended to house the co-working effort led by the Iowa City Area Development Group, a private organization founded in 1984 to encourage economic development in the area. After months of study and negotiations, the group is close to choosing a permanent home. The city is interested in helping out but, according to Ford, Markus has let it be known that the city’s will be “the last dollars in.”

So the consultant got the easy money and the locals are finding it tougher. Consultants provide little more than cover for nervous executives and Millar seems to have found some takers. That is what it is. More importantly, if at any point when reading this column or perusing Millar’s survey you thought “No, no, you dummies–what we need is a _____,” then it’s up to you to fill in the blank.

Talk the idea up, enlist some friends, get a business plan together, figure out what you’ll need to get started and fill in that blank. Someone’s going to and that someone ought to live in Iowa City.

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