When considering his future career path, a young Miles Brainard was introduced to the idea of urban planning and quickly discovered how the field actually combined a number of subject matters that piqued his interest. The Mason City, Iowa, native already had an interest in historic preservation, urban agriculture, sustainability and community development. But early […]
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 52 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
When considering his future career path, a young Miles Brainard was introduced to the idea of urban planning and quickly discovered how the field actually combined a number of subject matters that piqued his interest.
The Mason City, Iowa, native already had an interest in historic preservation, urban agriculture, sustainability and community development. But early in his college days at Iowa State University, he could not narrow down a career to pursue.
“I couldn’t find a major because of my wide interests,” recalled Mr. Brainard, whose career trajectory changed after a job-shadow experience with his hometown’s Planning and Zoning Manager Tricia Sandahl.
Mr. Brainard credits her with helping him see how planning touches on so many different subjects. On a tour with Ms. Sandahl, they visited a Farmer’s Market – an example of community development; and toured some of the city’s historic buildings. He said she also opened his eyes to the wide scope of areas under the purview of city planning and development.
Seven years later, Mr. Brainard is again combining his interests along with experience in urban planning as he embarks on his new role as the director of the City of Rock Island’s community and economic development (CED) department. In February, he was promoted to lead the department he joined in 2017 as a planner.
“It’s all led me here,” Mr. Brainard said of his previous work and life experiences.
He graduated in 2015 from Iowa State with a major in community and regional planning. Prior to joining Rock Island, he worked a year for the Mid-Iowa Development Association Council of Governments (MIDAS). Headquartered in Fort Dodge, the agency provides smaller Iowa communities with comprehensive planning and other services such as grant funding and administration, community development, housing support and transportation and transit services.
Today, the 28-year-old CED director oversees four divisions in the City of Rock Island department: planning, inspections, economic development and community development as well as its 14-person staff. He also helps oversee Rock Island’s Planning Commission, Arts Commission, Beautification Commission, Preservation Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Over the past decade, including all of Mr. Brainard’s tenure with Rock Island, the CED department has been plagued by turnover due to retirements, departures and budget issues.
Mr. Brainard said his first goal is to fill the key vacancies still remaining. “It’s a remarkable opportunity and very odd,” he said of the prospect of having to – right out of the gate – fill three of the four manager positions who report to him.
In fact, he already has promoted Jerad Irvine from building inspector to building official. He is interviewing candidates for community development manager and hopes to post his own previous position of planning and redevelopment administrator in April. The CED leadership team is rounded out by Tarah Sipes, the city’s economic development manager since March 2019.
“The position was vacant for quite some time,” Mr. Brainard said of the director role, adding that initially the city did not name an interim director. “Instead, the managers ran the department collectively by committee but with the understanding of each manager’s other roles.”
Mr. Brainard did, however, become the interim director in September to fill the vacancy left by Nathan Parch’s resignation after about only five months on the job. The position has largely been vacant since former CED Director Chandler Poole was terminated in 2019.
Mr. Brainard now hopes “to get more stable footing” for the department. “I’m very impressed with the way the team handled the pandemic with no director, no interim director – the four managers just handled it,” he said.
Interim City Manager John Gripp said the city decided to promote a director from within its own ranks given Mr. Brainard’s job performance. “Miles has been a great asset to the City of Rock Island,” Mr. Gripp said in a statement. “His dedication and commitment to community shine through in his work. I look forward to Miles leading our Community Economic & Development Department.”
Liz Tallman, vice president of development services for the Development Association of Rock Island (DARI) said her organization is thrilled to have Mr. Brainard on board. “Miles’ experience and talent in planning and team management has been such an added asset to our public private partnership between DARI and the city. I am excited to continue our collaborative economic development efforts to move Rock Island forward,” she added.
As he rebuilds the staff, Mr. Brainard also is assessing how the department’s and city’s council’s goals match up. “The big thing I want us to do is have a shared vision and be moving in the same direction,” he said.
He is enthusiastic about the city partnering with the Quad Cities Chamber on a new downtown placemaking initiative and the changes and improvements it could bring to the central business district. But the department also must focus on the community as a whole, he said.
Mr. Brainard does not want the department to be overly focused on a single area, industry or a type of development. “We’re going to have a holistic approach and take anything we can,” he said, adding “We’re going to be as much focused on downtown as the southwest area.”
Still there are some key development areas that have the city’s attention including: the College Hill area around Augustana College and the 18th Avenue and 11th Street corridors. That corridor includes the large, vacant site where the city had planned for a Walmart store.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of community frustration built into that,” Mr. Brainard said. “But it’s a shovel-ready site, that’s what I like to remind people. Even though that particular deal (did not materialize), it’s very possible in a couple years we’ll have something even better than Walmart there.”
Mr. Brainard also is excited about a new coordinated effort between the cities of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline to create a regional land bank to help the communities address the problems of vacant and blighted land. He said it would be similar to the Northern Illinois Regional Land Bank Authority in Rockford. Illinois’ Cook County operates the nation’s largest land bank, he added.
Through an intergovernmental agreement, Mr. Brainard said the Illinois Quad Cities communities would form an agency with the same power to acquire vacant and abandoned properties as the individual cities. But through its legal authority, the land bank could eliminate tax liens and other stumbling blocks – such as back taxes – in order to give the properties a clean title and make it more affordable for a new owner to purchase and redevelop it.
“Having a land bank would give us access to additional funds,” Mr. Brainard said. While each city could still apply for state grants, the land bank also could seek funding from the Illinois Development Authority.