Room for improvement

Iolans discuss a community ‘wish list’ at Thrive's annual Community Conversation. Their wants could be summed up in three categories: tourism readiness, community communications and infrastructure.

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Local News

June 19, 2024 - 1:24 PM

Terri Fahnestock, a communications instructor at Allen Community College, addresses the audience at Tuesday’s Iola Community Conversation hosted by Thrive Allen County. Behind her are Gary McIntosh and Rebecca Nilges. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Iola residents outlined a long wish-list at a community conversation Tuesday evening.

The event was sponsored by Thrive Allen County, which visits each town in the county over a course of several months to gauge residents’ priorities. Thrive staff use those conversations to guide their work over the next year as they seek grants and development opportunities. 

Iola’s conversations touched on topics such as sidewalk improvements, creating a food truck village and developing a “food culture,” hospitality training, more wayfinding and communication, public restrooms and building a community recreation center with an indoor pool. 

If there was a central theme, it was preparing for an influx of tourists once the new Lehigh Portland State Park is up and running. 

Lisse Regehr, Thrive CEO, facilitated the discussion. About 34 residents attended the meeting with another 22 watching via a YouTube livestream, and nine Thrive staff members.

Regehr recapped last year’s discussion, which resulted in a focus on tourism readiness, housing and childcare. She noted work continues on housing and childcare, with progress made in those areas.

By the end of Tuesday’s discussion, three overarching categories encapsulated most of the issues raised by residents. 

They are:

Lisse Regehr, Thrive Allen County CEO, facilitates discussion at Iola’s Community Conversation Tuesday evening at the Iola High School Science Center. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Tourism readiness

To capitalize on the influx of out-of-towners visiting the state park, community leaders need to find ways to bring them into the city to patronize businesses. That can be done by installing more “wayfinding” signs and promoting existing amenities. For example, Iola has a dog park. It might be useful for travelers to know where it is. 

Jim Gilpin, a banker, said the community needs to think about how to best develop the city as a destination “if we’re serious about leveraging what we’ll have with all these visitors coming to the state park.” He suggested offering some type of hospitality training program. 

Some also suggested Iola amend its rules and regulations to promote and support business development, with some complaining about a too-restrictive environment that holds back progress.

One suggestion was for a “food truck village,” a one-stop shop where visitors and residents can go for a quick meal. 

Myra Gleason, owner of Wild Bloom Coffee, wants to better develop a “food culture” in Iola, but said that would require a change in thinking at all levels, from patrons to city officials. She would like to offer classes and other types of training to shift the way residents think about food and entrepreneuership.

Gleason, who came to Iola about two years ago to start a business, said she has noticed how a “gossip culture” limits growth and spreads negativity. 

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