COUNCIL BLUFFS — Matt Walsh has been a council member here for nearly 20 years, giving him a front-row seat for the development that has transformed his hometown.
As Council Bluffs' new mayor, Walsh wants to see the revitalization extend to West Broadway, the tired entrance to the city that he and other city leaders see as a prime candidate for redevelopment.
It may be the biggest challenge Walsh faces as mayor. The 57-year-old Council Bluffs banker was elected to the position in November. He formally takes office today in a ceremony at City Hall, replacing Tom Hanafan, who was mayor for more than a quarter-century and was considered the longest-serving mayor of a major Iowa city.
As he steps out of Hanafan's shadow, Walsh can tick off a list of other challenges, including a pending levee recertification and the need to replace a number of retiring officials.
The city is riding a wave of development nearly unprecedented in its 160-year-plus history, most recently marked by the opening of Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park, on the Missouri riverfront.
Going forward, Walsh said he will not sharply change the direction of City Hall. But he said he will draw on his years of business experience to address the city's challenges.
Walsh has a common touch, something you might not expect from the son of a prominent local attorney.
He grew up in Council Bluffs, graduated from St. Albert High School in 1974 and enrolled in the University of Iowa that fall.
But he lasted only one semester, drinking too much and burning through more than $5,000 he had saved from his high school jobs.
Walsh dropped out of college and returned to Council Bluffs.
“My dad was the attorney for Local 1140,” he said. “And on the day my grades came, I had a union card in my billfold and a shovel in my hand.”
He worked for years as a construction laborer and beer truck driver, before enrolling at Creighton University in Omaha. He earned his finance degree in three years while continuing to work full time.
The experience taught Walsh the value of money and the importance of spending it wisely.
He graduated in 1986 and took his first job at a bank. Walsh began joining local organizations and committees. After Hanafan was elected mayor in 1988, he asked Walsh to serve on the planning commission. In 1994, he won his first council election and has served continuously since then.
As a council member, Walsh was involved in the development of the city-owned Mid-America Center, a $74 million convention center and arena that opened in 2002, as well as the redevelopment of parts of downtown Council Bluffs.
In the 2012 mayor's race, Walsh faced off against Brent Siegrist, who represented Council Bluffs for 18 years in the Iowa House. Siegrist, executive director of the Area Education Agencies of Iowa, argued that city government needed a fresh perspective, while Walsh said he knew the ins and outs of City Hall better than anyone except Hanafan.
On election day, Walsh garnered 62 percent of the vote.
“I think people were happy with the direction the city was going,” Walsh said.
Walsh is expected to be paid about $97,000 per year.
Hanafan, who endorsed Walsh, said Council Bluffs residents will have little trouble figuring out their new mayor's views.
“Matt is the kind of person who wears it on his sleeve,” Hanafan said. “You know where he stands.”
Hanafan and Walsh said a property tax measure passed by the Iowa Legislature in the 2013 session will make things more difficult for the city, reducing the amount of commercial property taxes it can collect.
To Walsh, the only way to raise the money the city needs without increasing taxes is to foster successful economic development.
No challenge may be more pressing than the redevelopment of West Broadway.
The street has no dedicated storm sewers, leaving water to sit on the roadway, degrading the surface.
“It really has made the appearance of West Broadway really unappealing,” he said. “It's the first visual impact the city has on visitors to the west and it just sends the wrong message.”
Progress has already been made on redeveloping the corridor, including the removal of train tracks that run parallel to the street to the south, and the dismantling of the long-vacant Bunge grain elevators.
The street is part of U.S. Highway 6 and maintained by the Iowa Department of Transportation, which wants to transfer jurisdiction to the city, Walsh said.
The city and the department are negotiating an agreement, but the city wants the state to rebuild the street first, with a dedicated storm sewer line. The project is expected to cost about $100 million in state and local funds.
Hanafan said that's the kind of issue that plays to Walsh's strengths. Development is often a budgetary and numbers game, and Walsh has years of experience in that area.
“He's always been a numbers guy,” Hanafan said.
Another challenge will be recertifying the levees that protect much of Council Bluffs from the Missouri River. The city will most likely have to make improvements, a $40 million to $60 million proposition.
“Without the certification of the levees, half of the city would be in a flood plain,” Walsh said.
Walsh also comes to office at a time of substantial turnover in the city's senior staff. Many of those who run city departments are reaching retirement age. In 2014, Walsh expects to hire a fire chief, police chief, human resources director and finance director.
Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Bluffs Chamber of Commerce, said Walsh will face another challenge: People comparing him to his predecessor.
“I think one of his challenges will be developing his own person, developing his own style,” he said.