State of the City

We Lead holds annual meeting, features special speakers from all over WL


“The simple takes a lot of work to look simple,” said Jerry Melick, President of West Liberty Economic Area Development (We Lead), during its annual meeting on Friday, May 17.

“I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring us as we continue to grow beyond this plateau,” he added at the West Liberty Community Center.

We Lead held its State of the City and Annual Report luncheon, featuring speakers from the city, the school district, the Chamber, WL Foods, and more.

Melick highlighted the growth of West Liberty from a local community in Muscatine County to an influencer on the state and national stage.

But perhaps no speaker radiated more positivity than We Lead Director Ken Brooks, who discussed the past and future of the community.

“Friends, we have continued to progress from forming to norming to performing,” he said. 

“West Liberty is setting the example for communities—not just here in Muscatine County, not just across the State of Iowa, but across the nation,” he added. “I’m often asked what West Liberty’s secret is…it’s an easy answer: it’s our people.”

During the meeting, speakers touched on nearly every aspect of West Liberty, from housing and diversity, to business and growth.

For We Lead, this last year it secured a $200,000 downtown development grant, $100,000 in city economic development grants and new developments in Liberty Park.

We Lead undertook 49 diverse projects throughout the year, experiencing a 38 percent growth in membership as it fostered local businesses and tackled development.

The organization also secured a $100,000 grant for the Corner Tap Building in Atalissa, welcomed six brand new businesses and hired Krista Lanier as its new Community Development Specialist.

Development will continue to be a major focal point of We Lead moving forward, according to Director Brooks.

A citywide housing study commissioned by the Muscatine County Housing Council states that over 90 percent of low-income homeowners and renters in West Liberty are severely cost-burdened.

“We Lead remains committed to addressing the housing needs of our community as our primary focus,” said Director Brooks.

He explained that there is critical strain on West Liberty’s housing market, driven by shifts in housing demands over the years. The key to overcoming this is to diversify.

“It’s a pickle,” he said. “Looking forward, West Liberty urgently needs to diversify our housing stock.” Housing will need to focus on all income brackets to encourage growth.

Over the year, development has included the “Old Tire Shop” building on Columbus St., “The Meadows” housing development in the south and the Dutton housing development.

“As West Liberty continues to grow, it is imperative that key stakeholders, including policymakers, community leaders and developers, collaborate,” he said.

“To implement these recommendations and ensure that all residents of West Liberty have access to suitable, affordable and quality housing,” he added.

Mayor Mark Smith

This idea of growth carried over into the State of the City Address given by West Liberty Mayor Mark Smith.

Smith was elected as mayor last November and took over the role soon after. He spent more than 20 years serving in the House of Representatives in Des Moines.

While he’s spent a lifetime traveling around Iowa, he sees West Liberty as entirely unique.

“The important fact is that West Liberty is going to continue to grow,” he said. “Over the past 50 years, there has not been a single decade where the population of this city did not increase.”

He stated that in the 1970 census, there were 2,296 inhabitants of West Liberty. However, the latest census shows the population to be 3,858 and growing.

In fact, from 2000 to 2022, West Liberty has grown 15 percent, while between 2010 and 2022, income in West Liberty rose by 49 percent.

The poverty rate in West Liberty is 6.6 percent, compared to the overall 11.7 percent in Muscatine County.

Not only that, but the inhabitants of West Liberty are young, especially among Hispanic and Latino families. Young families benefit particularly from the excellent work done by the school district.

“We do have a promising future, we will grow again,” said the mayor, stating it will take adequate planning to enhance downtown, housing, businesses and the quality of life.

“The state of our city is, as it has always been, strong,” he concluded. “I leave you with the promise of a bright future depending on the continuation of West Liberty doing so well.”

City Manager Lee Geertz

City Manager Lee Geertz gave a few remarks on the city as well, including the fact that West Liberty is helping pilot a childcare program for the Army National Guard.

She talked about two big hires this last year, including Josh Houser as the police chief and Cody Franklin as the new electric superintendent.

Construction has concluded for the overhaul of Rainbow Drive/Maxson Ave. and is near completion at Knotty Circle Drive.

“The sidewalk program has continued, and our community has been very good about getting their sidewalks done,” she said.

The sidewalk program targets a quarter section of the City of West Liberty each year, asking residents and businesses to fix their sidewalks in those areas.

“We can continue what we enjoy so much here, which is the walkability of the community,” she said, mentioning all the foot traffic from students or workers at West Liberty Foods.

“It’s important to us to have safe sidewalks out there,” she said. “Along with that, we’ll be putting in new sidewalk along Columbus St.”

However, a big hurdle for the city this year was state legislation, specifically legislation tied to overhauling property taxes. However, that led back to the theme of growth.

“Due to West Liberty’s growth, with our new buildings and new properties, our valuation actually increased enough so the city did not have to make some cuts like our neighbors have had to do,” said Geertz.

This means programming offered by the Parks and Recreation Department as well as the West Liberty Public Library went unhindered, while maintaining competitive wages in the police department.

As for the city and the fire separtment: “Things continue to progress; we don’t rush things because we want it right,” she concluded. “It’s a good thing, folks. We’re communicating, we’re talking, it’s positive.”

West Liberty Foods

Another featured speaker during the meeting was Brandon Achen, President and CEO of West Liberty Foods, the community’s largest employer.

Achen was quite blunt about the situation at the turkey plant; they’ll see a significant reduction in their workforce before the end of the year.

He stated that the West Liberty plant, which once employed over 900 employees, will dip to the 550 mark by December.

“I think it’s important for you to know as community members, to feel some reassurance, that we’re here, we’re stable, and we’re going to continue to be here,” he said.

“Our company has gone through a tremendous amount of change over the last handful of years,” he said, the biggest being a decrease in its product sold to Subway.

In 2019, Subway saw a change in leadership; with that change came a decrease in demand for meat from West Liberty Foods.

However, the company is still doing business with Subway, as well as Costco and Walmart, with Walmart becoming one of its bigger contracts these last few years.

Unfortunately, this means the plant is shifting its focus to two main areas, turkey harvest and log fabrication, allocating other services to other plants owned by West Liberty Foods.

“There is no other facility in our network that can harvest turkeys,” he said. “So, there’s going to be a need here in town,” he said, with some assurance.

President Achen talked about the culture in West Liberty, one that has been incredibly supportive. West Liberty Foods is supported by the local government and school district.

“That’s not the case in a lot of meat processing towns,” he said, stating that they were proud to keep the West Liberty Foods Market and Café open to the public.

As West Liberty Foods moves forward, it will look into diversifying. Not only that, but the company will continue to support the community and do what it can for outgoing workers.

West Liberty Community School District

West Liberty Community School Superintendent Shaun Kruger gave a glimpse into the past year for the schools.

“Tons of good things are going on here with our students,” he began. “Graduation is coming up; on May 26 we’ll have approximately 85 seniors graduating this year.”

For the upcoming school year (2024/2025), they expect total enrollment to be around 1,250, a number that has stayed somewhat steady over the last ten years. That being said:

“A lot of it will hinge upon the completion of some of the housing projects. I know there’s a lot of great projects going on here in town,” said Supt. Kruger.

“As soon as those dwellings are built and people move in, we anticipate that will increase our enrollment,” he added.

He took some time to talk about current legislation at the Iowa House and its potential effect on local school districts, including our own.

Legislation has moved the deadline back to March 1 for open enrollment, provided funding to sustain pay increases for teachers, and dealt with chronic absenteeism.

“It seems like since Covid, chronic absenteeism has been on the increase across, not just our district or the state, but nationally,” he said, regarding a bill that would deal with the issue.

Another bill aims at increasing literacy comprehension from kindergarten through sixth grade, something Supt. Kruger says the district is addressing.

“I think our ELC/elementary teachers already do a very good job of knowing where those students are at,” he said. “They already do a lot to put plans in place to help struggling readers.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds recently signed a law that allows trained school staff to carry guns on school grounds.

House File 2586 creates a new permitting process for Iowa K-12 public and private schools, community colleges, and public and private colleges and universities to arm trained staff.

“I can say that we have not had that conversation, we have not talked about that,” said Kruger. “That would open up a huge can of worms; there’s so many issues and factors.”

This year also marks the end of several large capital improvement projects for the West Liberty School District, including the new Pre-K building and the new athletic sports complex.

He said that they continue to hold onto the old football field, considering it prime real estate for the district in case it needs to grow.

“We appreciate the partnership and all the support that the community provides our district. We are very fortunate to have such supportive people,” he concluded.

West Liberty Chamber of Commerce

West Liberty Chamber of Commerce President Donna Alberti had the privilege of being the first featured speaker during the luncheon.

“We don’t have as crazy of a year as we did last year,” she said, referring to big one-time occurrences such as RAGBRAI last summer.

“However, we still have our regular standard events, we have the fair parade, we have our farmer’s market that started the first of May,” she added, saying it will go through October.

Other events include Picnic in the Park, the Best Ball Golf Outing, as well as music in Ron-De-Voo Park. Follow the Chamber Facebook page to find dates as they become relevant.

Muscatine County

Finally, Kurt Kirchner, a member of the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors, gave a quick update on the county as a whole.

“The county has 100 bridges,” he said in a non-sequitur fashion. “I didn’t know we were at exactly 100. The definition of a bridge is that it has to have a 20-foot span.”

On a more serious note, he stated the county is still in the middle of a nine-month moratorium concerning wind energy, ending on Oct. 20.

The moratorium puts a pause on new approvals of wind farms in light of proposals by independent companies that include turbines exceeding 650 feet in height.

On May 22, from 6-8 p.m., a Muscatine County Comprehensive Plan Visioning Workshop will occur at the West Liberty Community Center, and no registration is required.

Muscatine County officials will be seeking citizens’ input for the development of a comprehensive land use plan update for the county, including alternative energy.

“The plan has been updated since 2014, so if you’d like to come and have any input, help us out on how we want to see the county in five or 10 years, it’s a good meeting to come to,” he said.