Public Service Innovators -- An Iowa Success Story: Mike Van Milligen S&L 1996

April 9, 2004
Lory Hough

When Mike Van Milligen (S&L 1996), city manager of Dubuque, Iowa, first started his job more than a dozen years ago, the city wasn't doing well. Unemployment rates were in the double digits. Industries that had once been a driving force were moving out. The decaying waterfront was an eyesore, littered with abandoned factories. Community morale was low.
Today, the city is thriving.
A $57 million Mississippi River museum and aquarium, a 200-room hotel with an indoor water park, a new convention center, and a pedestrian walkway replaced abandoned buildings along the waterfront. Downtown property values have tripled as new restaurants, wine shops, and bakeries open. Recently, the Metro Business Retention Index ranked the city second in the nation for business retention. Unemployment has fallen.
Van Milligen won't take all the credit for the city's turnaround, but, as the International City/County Management Association said last fall when it named him "Outstanding Manager of the Year," his "innovative ideas, enthusiasm, and endless optimism" have certainly made a huge difference.
He was the one, for example, who decided to team up with local nonprofits like the Dubuque Historical Society and the local chamber of commerce - not just for-profit businesses - to figure out a way to bring the waterfront area back to life.
"These partnerships have been wildly successful for us," he says.
He also approaches the management of the city in an almost old-fashioned way. There's no mention of focus groups or high-paid consultants analyzing best practices. Van Milligen already knows the best way to run a mid-sized city: focus on the people and keep it simple.
"Plan your work and work your plan," he says. "I know this sounds obvious, but when I got here, the city's last business plan was written in 1935."
It's also important for city workers to be problem solvers, he notes, and he includes himself.
"When people come to us with an issue, they expect an answer. They expect you to follow-up with them," he says. "We believe in trying to do that. We at least make an effort. Rather than saying, 'Oh sorry, that's against the ordinance,' we try to see if there is something that can be done."
And of course, being input-oriented is also important.
"The best place to get input is from citizens and frontline employees," he says. During his first five years as city manager, Van Milligen spent one day each month working with a different city employee. He walked a police beat, collected recyclables, processed bills, and inspected houses.
"I needed to understand what people's jobs were like. And being new to the area, I also needed employees to know about me," he says. "To this day, that experience pays dividends."

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