The 712 Initiative is celebrating one year of Sheryl Garst leading the organization as its CEO.

As a resident of Council Bluffs for the last fifteen years, Garst’s vision for the community is a strong one. That vision is to make Council Bluffs a dynamic healthy community where families and businesses choose to live, work and play.

With a background in community and regional planning, Garst knows her way around the community. From 2003 to 2008, she was the Director of Redevelopment for the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce and was part of a three-person team that planned and implemented redevelopment projects totaling more than $18.4 million in assessed value which increased the local tax base by 387 percent.

After taking a career break to raise three children, Garst jumped right back into community planning with the 712 Initiative last July.

“It was a hard decision to leave a position I loved back in 2008 knowing I might not be able to return to it,” disclosed Garst. “I’m ecstatic to be back in a position that allows me to make such positive change in this community.

Not that Garst hasn’t been active in the community even when she wasn’t working. She served on the Council Bluffs City Council in 2011 and on countless advisory councils and committees throughout the city, such as Preserve Council Bluffs, Lincoln Fairview Neighborhood Association and Pottawattamie County Community Foundation’s Board of Directors, just to name a few.

“The 712 Initiative Board of Directors is very excited to have Sheryl Garst as our CEO,” explained Douglas Goodman, the 712 Initiative’s Board of Directors Board Chair.

“She is very enthusiastic and has a wonderful background that is well suited to our organization and her previous experience with Pottawattamie County Development Corporation has provided a strong foundation for our current projects.

A recipient of the State of Iowa Governor’s Volunteer Award and the Daily Nonpareil’s Difference Maker designation, Garst is now a year into making the 712 Initiative a staple in the community. Although that is proving harder to do when residents do not realize all that the organization is doing.

Even though the 712 Initiative is a new name, its parent organizations, the Pottawattamie County Development Corporation, Live Well Council Bluffs and Bluffs Downtown, have been active in the community for the past two decades.

Those organizations brought such projects such as the Hughes Irons, Sawyer and Rise mix use building projects on the south side of the 100 Block, 25th & West Broadway Hy-Vee block development, South Main Harvester Artist Lofts, Availa Bank – Old Nonpareil renovation, ConAgra expansions, South Main Senior Housing and the West Broadway entry feature.

Now as an Iowa West Foundation initiative, the 712 Initiative has received a great deal of support toward continued real estate development, neighborhood engagement and public space activation pursuits. Along with $500,000 of annual support for the first five years of the 712 Initiative’s operations, earlier in 2018, the Iowa West Foundation awarded the nonprofit a $1 million grant to use towards their downtown re-vitalization fund.

“The purpose of the Iowa West Foundation-backed 712 initiative is to create a holistic, collaborative approach to community development in Council Bluffs,” said Pete Tulipana, Iowa West Foundation’s President and CEO. “The ongoing commitment to funding the organization and its projects is a recognition by our Board of the importance of creating an attractive environment to encourage private sector investment and development.”

Work is currently wrapping up on 103 West Broadway, a project that the 712 Initiative, through the generous contributions of the Iowa West Foundation, had funded in site assembly and construction with the vital partnership and hard work of J. Development Company.

The 712 Initiative also recently donated the Harvester II building to Pottawattamie Arts Culture and Entertainment (PACE) for their new Hoff Family Arts and Culture Center.

“As the community’s leading community development nonprofit, the 712 Initiative takes on projects that the private sector cannot simply do on its own due to depressed market rents that cannot support the renovation or new construction needed,” Garst said.

“Our projects typically take three-five years to implement due to multi layered financing and it’s important to have projects in three stages of development – site assembly, financing and construction in order to have enough projects hitting in a consistent manner.”

“It’s important for the community to understand how vital this organization is for our community,” said Chad Hannan, a 712 Initiative board member.

“To have the vision to purchase the South Main properties before they could be destroyed and to wait until the right opportunity for the community presented itself is remarkable to me. The 712 Initiative has long approached projects with a collaborative mindset, often times performing the behind the scenes work necessary to see a project completed, I’m very excited for the future of this organization, and our community, with Sheryl in the driver’s seat at the 712 Initiative.”

The organization is hoping to mirror the success they had on the 100 Block. Work is being done to increase the number of housing units in downtown, to bring back the urban wall lost among the urban renewal of the 1970s.  Garst eluded to plans for an additional 60 units in the downtown area.

Garst said, “It’s going to take a tremendous number of partners to pull this next project off, but we are up for the challenge.” If the funding can be raised as projected, the project will start construction in 2022.

Other programs and events that were passed down by the 712 Initiative’s parent organizations include the Council Bluffs Farmers Market, Shamrock Shuffle, Bike the Night, Celebrate CB, Clean Sweep, Earth Day Shoe Drive and Creektop Community Gardens.

The 712 Initiative is focused on creating a sense of community and increased activity in downtown Council Bluffs through placemaking activities.

Garst explained, “A key piece to building the community is creating events and programming to make Council Bluffs an interesting and enjoyable place to live. We want to make Council Bluffs a destination for people to live.”

The 712 Initiative is working to activate more public spaces throughout the community, particularly downtown, through its programming and events, such as the Council Bluffs Farmers Market and Creektop Community Gardens. A Director of Programming and Events was hired on in May to grow existing events and add new ones in the years to come.

In the last year alone, the 712 Initiative has greatly expanded its reach in the community and continues to invest in the increase of social engagement and healthy lifestyles in Council Bluffs.

With recent hires of a Marketing and PR Coordinator and a Neighborhood Coordinator, along with the Director of Programming and Events, the 712 Initiative is working hard under the leadership of Garst to continue growing the pride of this unique city.

Garst said, “We really hope this a new beginning to a better partnership among residents, businesses, city leaders with our developments and events to make Council Bluffs the place to be and something completely unexpected!”

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