Kelly: A quarter-century of change in Council Bluffs, with Tom Hanafan leading the way -
Published Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:18 pm
Kelly: A quarter-century of change in Council Bluffs, with Tom Hanafan leading the way

Tom Hanafan has straddled the Missouri River like no one else — one foot planted firmly in his hometown but the other frequently stepping across to Omaha.

As mayor of Council Bluffs for more than a quarter-century, the good-natured Hanafan has served opposite nine Omaha mayors and jokes that he is tired of breaking them in.

As he steps down as chief executive of his Iowa city of 62,000, he is being praised for his regional outlook. But even more so, people on both sides of the Muddy Mo marvel how much the Bluffs has changed under his long leadership.

“I don't know how you can watch a city go through that much transformation and still have the same leader,” said Clare Duda of Omaha, a Douglas County Board member for 21 years. “Usually with that much change, you change leadership, too. To watch what he has done with Council Bluffs — he is doing something right.”

If the Bluffs has undergone transformation — with casinos, hotels, sports and entertainment centers, massive public art, a new public library, high-tech investment, completion of a 15-year sewer-separation project and more — Hanafan, who grew up in a blue-collar railroad family, has served as the conductor and head transformer.

Self-described as “kind of a wild kid in high school,” Hanafan, 66, is on his victory lap, his last month as mayor before retiring on Jan. 3. Despite being a short-timer, though, he isn't coasting.

He attended a statewide meeting in Des Moines on Wednesday about 2014 Iowa legislative priorities, and a luncheon on Thursday for city employees in the Bluffs.

Then he called across to Omaha to say he would be a bit late for a governmental board meeting. That's because he wanted to attend a farewell party for Bluffs Sewer Superintendent Chuck Pendgraft, a Vietnam veteran retiring after 43 years.

City employees such as Pendgraft, the mayor said, are the ones who hold a community together.

Hanafan admires those who work with their hands as well as their heads and get things done. His own family included a dad and uncles who worked long careers with Union Pacific, and they got him a job there as a teenager.

A graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, Tom played football at the University of South Dakota and majored in history and government.

He soon began officiating high school football, which he did for 40 years, and basketball for a number of years, too. As a volunteer, Hanafan helped build a YMCA youth program that he said started with 60 kids and grew to more than 700.

He won election to the City Council in 1982 in part, he says, because many of those youths from the Y distributed “Vote for Tom” fliers around town.

Council Bluffs switched to a strong-mayor form of government like Omaha's, and Hanafan, a former confection and tobacco salesman, was elected in 1987. He was re-elected in 1989 and five times after that.

His successor, Mayor-elect Matt Walsh, said Hanafan could have been re-elected mayor as long as he wanted to stay.

“He's someone people can talk to,” said Walsh, an 18-year veteran of the City Council. “He is not aloof. Tom is just familiar with the common man, and he never let that change him no matter how long he remained in office.”

Said Hanafan: “It's been kind of an amazing opportunity for a guy who grew up in the west end to stay with the city this long.”

Council Bluffs has charming features, such as the General Dodge House, Bayliss Park and the Union Pacific Museum in a former Carnegie library building, as well as expensive homes in the hills. But it has long been seen as a working-class town, especially among the modest homes on the west end where Hanafan grew up.

As a kid, Tom played near what he called Stink Creek, which he pronounces “Stink Crick.” Decades later under his mayoral watch, casinos and hotels were built nearby, and the stinky “crick” was replaced with a modern storm sewer.

The rise of the gambling industry in Council Bluffs at times has placed him at odds with Omaha, where state law does not permit casinos.

In fact, the advent of the Bluffs Run dog track in the late 1980s and then casinos in the 1990s helped lead to the demise in 1995 of an Omaha icon and economic engine that some thought would last forever, the Ak-Sar-Ben horse-racing track.

When Hal Daub was mayor of Omaha (1994-2001), he once called Iowa “a triple-X-rated state” and criticized the casinos for creating problem gamblers.

Hanafan said casinos have succeeded in part because people in the metro area were used to gambling at Ak-Sar-Ben.

Since 1996, the three casinos have produced $75 million in gambling tax revenue for Council Bluffs. Hanafan said they also provide 2,300 jobs, with about three-fifths of them going to Nebraskans.

The mayor's relationship with Omaha mostly has been warm. After a 1988 tornado caused $43 million in damage and injured 80 people, he noted that many of the volunteers who helped with the cleanup came from the west side of the river.

And after the Missouri flooded for 114 days in 2011 — when he and others worked 14-hour days and guarded against sand boils undermining the levees — he praised Omaha officials for organizing and continuously pumping water that saved Eppley Airfield.

“Eppley could have gone under,” Hanafan told me recently at the Omaha Press Club. “The airfield people and the City of Omaha did a wonderful job. That was scary.”

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Hanafan now serves as co-­chairman of Heartland 2050, a long-term vision of the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency for eight counties in the Omaha-­Council Bluffs area. He will continue in that role, and said “this amazing region has unlimited opportunities for growth.”

The MAPA board, on which he has served for years, honored him Thursday in Omaha. He was hailed not only for his success as mayor and for his contributions to the region but also for his “magnetism and good cheer.”

Shaking his hand, a mayor from the Nebraska side of the river, Doug Kindig of La Vista, said simply: “Tom, you have been what a politician is supposed to be.”

In the late 1990s, Hanafan was wooed by national Democrats to run for Congress, and he even attended a meeting at the White House. But he said he'd rather be close to constituents at home, where he can chat with them and hear their questions while he pumps gas for his car.

Not everything has gone perfectly. The Mid-America Center, a $74 million convention center and arena that opened in 2002, has lost money, though Hanafan said he doesn't consider building it a mistake.

But there is much that has gone right. MidAmerican Energy Co. built a $1.2 billion plant, Iowa's largest coal power plant. And a great irony for the supposed roughneck, blue-­collar town is that it drew a huge investment from high-tech ­Google, which opened a data center.

The transformation of Council Bluffs isn't due to any one person, but for a quarter-century the city has been led by one person.

“We have things today that people would not have thought possible 25 years ago,” said Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce. “Tom has done a great job of utilizing his staff and the expertise of the community to build a vision.”

The chamber CEO added that Hanafan is very good at building consensus.

“He can talk to any group, find out what they have in common and use common threads to bind everybody,” Mundt said. “He is just a personable guy, and it's hard not to like him.”

As for Hanafan's metrowide, both-sides-of-the-river outlook, Mundt said: “Tom realizes there is so much more that we have in common than is different. He tends to focus on those things.”

Hanafan and his wife of 43 years, Shirley, were honored this fall by Iowa Western Community College. She is retired after 25 years at Union Pacific and is a longtime community volunteer for nonprofit groups.

The couple have two children: Chris, a teacher and coach at Lewis Central High School, and Kari, a physical therapist. In retirement, the Hanafans plan to enjoy more time with grandchildren.

Omaha and Council Bluffs are not twin cities — one is seven times larger than the other. But the Bluffs has come out from the shadow of its big brother across the river.

In his office, Mayor Hanafan displays a favorite photo. It shows him smiling with former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska on the pedestrian bridge connecting Omaha and Council Bluffs.

Today, within a few minutes, a person could walk down Mike Fahey Street in Omaha and across the Bob Kerrey Bridge to the new Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park in Council Bluffs. Hanafan chuckles at the thought.

He didn't set out to have a park named for him, but there it sits in the Bluffs' west end, a mile from his childhood home.

The Hanafan Park's permanent sitting areas, by the way, face the Omaha skyline.

Tom Hanafan is a member of the Omaha softball hall of fame as well as a former president of the Iowa League of Cities. His home and office phone numbers begin with the 712 area code of western Iowa, but his cellphone uses the 402 of eastern Nebraska.

He maintains first loyalty to his hometown. But he knows that a mere hyphen separates Omaha-Council Bluffs — and that we live in one metropolitan area.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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