‘Game-changer’ initiatives

Council Bluffs makes Wi-Fi available throughout community

By Lisa Rossi

Council Bluffs is becoming known for its public-private partnerships, one of which has resulted in free Wi-Fi throughout the city and another that’s fueling development in its urban core. 

Mayor Matt Walsh

The following is an edited and condensed conversation with Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh.

I heard you recently partnered with the Council Bluffs Community School District, Google and several organizations to bring citywide internet to Council Bluffs. What impact has that had on the city?

When we started it would have been the largest in the world, we were told. I don’t know where it stands today, but with some COVID relief money, we expedited that installation and we completed everything in the Council Bluffs school district we intended to complete. We had people learning remotely during the pandemic; the vast majority of those residences were able to get free Wi-Fi to keep up with their educational work. 

How did you get all those partners to work together to make this happen?

Well, I think the main motivation is people saw the need for students. The fact that much of the educational process had transferred from textbooks to laptops, and just the recognition with the high percentage of poverty, that so many kids would be disadvantaged to their counterparts; parents couldn’t afford to hook up to the internet.

And it’s the whole city of Council Bluffs that has access to free Wi-Fi, except the hilly areas?

Not the hilly areas, correct. Eighty percent of the population has access to free Wi-Fi.

Community members at a BLink celebration in Council Bluffs. Contributed photo

I understand Council Bluffs is working on a big project that is going to bring in 30,000 jobs in the next 20 years – an urban core project. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Back a couple of years ago, the University of Nebraska Medical Center entered into discussion with the Department of Defense to do bioterrorism research. So they are doing a multibillion-dollar build-out of their campus over in Omaha. They are going to bring into the UNMC campus somewhere around 11,000 new-to-the-market jobs, research jobs, science-related jobs that don’t currently exist here. They will be moving into the Omaha metropolitan area. 

In addition to that, there will be other large projects going on. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. is doing a huge expansion. So a group got together and looked at how best to accommodate that influx of new workforce. Part of that plan is to put a light rail street car to allow people to get to the campus of UNMC. The one thing that is pretty evident, when you put a fixed-route street car system in dilapidated areas, it’s like water in the desert. Multifamily developments and ancillary businesses, restaurants, cleaners, those kinds of businesses build out, because they now have a new market to serve with high-rises. We think it’s going to be a game-changer for the city of Council Bluffs. 

I’d love to hear you talk more about why you think public-private partnerships are important to the economic vitality of your region. 

In Council Bluffs, they are really important because we have a high percentage of poverty. So we have low average valuation on residential property. Our taxpayers’ pockets aren’t deep enough to fund these concepts and ideas that make a city an attractive place to live. The partnerships and the partners in the partnerships have grown. And the city government relies so heavily on its nonprofit network. We just can’t provide all the services that are necessary in an urban setting. The taxpayer can’t afford to pay for those. So we are very collaborative with our nonprofits, and our nonprofits are collaborative with each other. From my experience, this is relatively unusual.

Lisa Rossi is a freelance contributing writer.