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Difference Makers — A look back with former councilman and NEDC board member Mike Neff

Today we bring you a story about Michael Neff, one of the early members of the NEDC.
Michael Neff, most call him Mike, spent 37 years of his life in Nevada, Iowa. An optometrist, he owned Nevada Vision Clinic, which he opened in May of 1973 and closed in 2003 after 30 years.
Mike and his wife, Jane, had come to Nevada from Great Lakes, Ill., where Mike served for two years at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Before that, Mike was a staff optometrist at the Wolfe Eye Clinic in Marshalltown.
In the early 1990s, he became active in Nevada civic positions.
“I felt Nevada needed to continually expand its tax base in order to provide funding for infrastructure needs and quality of life amenities for all citizens.”
He was approached initially by Raymond Kassel and Nevada City Clerk Sue North to consider forming an organization to promote economic development.
“I had felt for a time that the City (of Nevada) was stagnant and not moving forward with business expansion.” Mike decided to get on board.
Now living in Osage Beach, Mo., Mike did his best to think back to the early 1990s and those involved in starting the NEDC. Some of the other business people who got on board, he said, included Ron Daehler, Dan Engler, Deb Holley, Todd Willert, Bruce Schwering, Bill Burke Jr., Fred Mathison, and Al Bradish.
“Bill Talbot, who was in the Parker Law Firm, worked with us on the legal requirements,” he noted.
One of its first tasks was to become Community Economic Preparedness Program (CEPP) certified, Mike said. “The team worked on all of the questionnaires and surveys needed to complete the process.”
Part of the process, he said, was to identify funding sources. Mike recalled combining the Chamber/NEDC director position to help with funding and office space.
One of the NEDC’s biggest challenges in those early years was to establish credibility, Mike said. “Many, including the City leadership, felt what the NEDC was trying to do would never work and would be a waste of time.”
As it faced those credibility struggles, the NEDC was also trying to figure out a game plan to accomplish goals. “We needed land with infrastructure where businesses could locate if they decided to come to Nevada. This meant we had to have a funding source, and the City had to be involved.”
Mike recalled one of the group’s first risks — approaching Harold Fawcett about the land he owned that would help Burke Marketing expand its operations.
“We had been told that Harold Fawcett would not be interested in selling. (But,) we decided if we didn’t take any risks, we would never get anywhere, so the NEDC met with Fawcett, presented our plan, and he quickly agreed to sell at a reasonable price. We were on our way.”
Even so, Mike remembered frustration with the City leaders still dragging their feet. Other business people — Ron Daehler, Rich Parker, Gary Clem, Kathy Strum — decided to get involved.
Daehler and Parker pushed for improvements in the downtown.
“Gary, Kathy and I decided to run for City Council to begin moving things forward.” It was the start of 14 years that Mike would serve on the Nevada City Council.
He recalled his feeling of hope as councilmen Dale Collings and Jerry Rewerts had pushed the City Council to bring a city manager aboard. Dennis Henderson, the City’s first administrator, came into the mix about the same time the NEDC started to gain momentum. “The Council was changing over to forward-thinking members and eventually … Jim Christy came in as mayor and brought harmony, direction and leadership to City Hall,” Mike said.
Dennis Henderson is one of two people Mike lists as being NEDC success stories. “Henderson showed us that incentives to attract new housing and industrial development were needed to compete with other towns.”
The other success story, Mike said, was LaVon Schiltz. “Hiring LaVon was the most important decision the NEDC made, in my mind. LaVon was highly knowledgeable, had a vast network of regional and state contacts, and was a skilled negotiator. LaVon was the leader we needed to help Nevada become the thriving community it is today.”
With the help of Henderson and Schiltz, the NEDC played a significant role in communicating to Council members and other community leaders the importance of establishing a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program, tax abatement for housing, and Local Option Tax. All of these could bring in significant revenue to the City, Mike said.
Mike doesn’t recall exact numbers but noted that in the mid-2000s, these NEDC-led measures brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the City.
Even though he no longers lives in Nevada, Mike follows the community’s progress and feels proud of the accomplishments that he, as a City leader, got to play a part in. He lists the following:
*NEDC and the City worked together to create a professional-looking community that was ready to do business.
*NEDC worked hard to make sure the Story County Justice Center was built in Nevada.
*NEDC was instrumental in acquiring land for SCORE Park.
*NEDC helped increase the tax base through businesses locating in industrial parks on both the east and west sides of town, and those funds helped make a new City Hall possible and ongoing infrastructure improvements. Mike also credited Dave Haugland for his leadership as City Administrator when Fareway, SCORE Park, and the Story County Justice Center were built.
*Getting Lincolnway Energy built, and the work the NEDC, LaVon Schiltz, Dave Haugland, and Bill Couser did in making this happen.
*NEDC worked on housing initiatives, like getting more apartments built in Nevada and promoting tax abatement to get the Regency Retirement Residence built.
*LaVon Schiltz worked to help General Financial relocate to the vacated Donnelley building.
Looking back, Mike said Raymond Kassel did so much for the NEDC and the City of Nevada, especially its Planning and Zoning Department. “He knew what needed to be done to help move NEDC along, and as P and Z chair, he brought ordinances to a level that made it possible to accomplish so much without damage to the City or its citizens.”
Mike said his time today is spent “puttering around the house” and sometimes flying. He and Jane spend winters in Naples, Fla., where Mike often enjoys breakfasts with Nevada friends Harold Brinkman and Jim Frevert.
Mike is always glad to hear about good things happening in Nevada. “Nevada was good to us,” he said.
For those picking up the torch of serving on the Nevada Economic Development Council, Mike advises they be committed to continuous improvement of the community as a whole, not just personal interests. “In the end, everyone benefits from that kind of – community as a whole – thinking.”
–Written by Marlys Barker, City of Nevada
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