Project Better Together

Project Better Together aims to build a transformed future for our community with greater economic diversity, growth, inclusivity, resilience, and well-being for all. Led by The Iowa City Area Business Partnership, Iowa City Area Development Group, Think Iowa City, and the Iowa City Downtown District, this community-wide recovery effort includes leaders from the four partner organizations, all three hospitals, the school district, area non-profits, social services, private business, and elected officials from all levels of government.

To help drive the work it will take to achieve these goals, the four organizations announced the appointment of former President & CEO of the Iowa City Area Development Group, Mark Nolte, to serve as Director of Project Better Together. Under Nolte’s leadership and strong back-end support from the four partner organizations, Project Better Together will begin by working with the network to quickly identify an organizational framework that is inclusive, agile, and strategic.


The Vision (Draft)

In Johnson County, we work together to foster an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable community with strong connections. Our county is recognized as a place where education, housing, employment, transportation, arts and culture, and social services are valued and readily available to all residents. Everyone across the county supports and embraces the diversity of their neighbors’ backgrounds, beliefs, values, and traditions without judgement or bias.

Education and Childcare
  • The leaders of Johnson County ensure funding for education is a priority with the State Government and there is a culture of lifelong learning and growth throughout Johnson County.
  • Johnson County leads the nation in access to affordable, high-quality child care and early education. Our young people are well-cared for and ready for a life of joy and learning.
  • Johnson County schools are well funded and provide equitable, safe, and individualized learning environments. Our schools are widely recognized as models for teaching to the whole child. Students are seen and heard for who they are and allowed to explore their passions; challenged to understand difficult topics; and through experiences, mentorship and guidance learn to be strong, healthy humans who understand and value differences and seek to improve themselves and their communities. Students have access to the right technologies, resources and opportunities to excel in their personal and civic lives with real world experiences to help them in their chosen career and educational paths.
  • Our schools seek, develop, and retain excellent BIPOC and immigrant educators and administrators.
  • Before and after school programming and activities are varied, robust, affordable and accessible to all.
  • Our primary and secondary schools partner with the University of Iowa and other educational organizations to pioneer better methods for assessment and evaluation that focus on improved learning and individualized growth.
  • The University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College collaborate to make higher education affordable and accessible to all students and are the priority choice for local students. The institutions offer rich programming with strong community and business connections to build experience and networking. Offerings are flexible and modularized to create a balanced continuum of learning throughout the career and life of the learner. There is a targeted investment in programs fostering discovery and best preparing students to thrive in a fast-changing future.
  • Johnson County is a model for equity and equality in terms of housing and basic needs. All residents in Johnson County are provided opportunities to be self-sufficient, safe, and healthy. The county is a place where justice is valued and a wide variety of innovative solutions to create real, long-term change are utilized. The public and private sectors have aligned to provide a network of support that is not duplicative and is constantly evolving and improving.
  • This is a place where everyone is empowered to improve their lives to live independently; a place where wealth is built and reinvested in sustainable ways. New policies around zoning, reinvestment and inclusive neighborhoods are the model used countywide.
  • Johnson County has a consolidated and coordinated public transportation system that is affordable and sustainable. Innovative mixes of trails, parking options and continued investment in highly utilized roads and bridges allow people of all incomes, ages and abilities to move easily throughout the county. Transportation runs on the cleanest energy possible.
Communication and Readiness
  • The community supports meaningful engagement in local government. Through new technologies and in-person opportunities, the public weighs in on issues in real time and participates in open, transparent dialogue with elected officials. Residents have access to high-speed, wireless Internet community-wide to help ensure connectedness. Our county uses a community-based approach to emergency preparedness in order to be a safe and resilient space for all residents.

Economy and Workforce
  • Johnson County has a strong, equitable local economy and workforce. Each person has opportunities to identify their interests and assets, and freely and openly can receive support to  develop those assets without judgement or bias.
  • Our employers and incumbent workers lead the nation in investing in growth and upskilling. Adult learners have access to a robust assortment of training programs through non-profits, Kirkwood Community College, online resources, and existing technologies such as the city cable channels. Language and cultural competency, financial literacy, health and well-being, parenting and civics programming are widely available along with vocation specific trainings.
  • We have a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship with the best programs to develop, fund and grow businesses. Johnson County is a national leader in the number of new businesses started and sustained and many of those are by BIPOC and immigrants.
  • Residents take pride in supporting local business and strive to keep our resources circulating here.
  • Our population and economy grow sustainably. Our business community is a catalyst for promoting and strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels, allowing us to attract and retain talent from across the nation and globe while we generate higher wages and wealth creation used to reinvest in our communities.
Social and Mental Health
  • Johnson County and its residents are the model for healthy living, and the area is recognized as one of the new “Blue Zones.” There is an abundance of activities to enhance physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Our health care providers are recognized nationally for their innovative ways for preventing and treating illness and injury and there is an overall pride in how our residents choose health in abundance.
Arts and Culture
  • Johnson County is renowned nationally as a hub for the creative arts and through the creation and sharing of artistic expression, truly earning its moniker: “The Greatest Small City for the Arts.” Residents are regularly exposed to a wide variety of high quality, accessible public art, cultural, and recreational programming.

Thanks to the support from Johnson County, MidWestOne Bank, West Bank, GreenState Credit Union, Great Western Bank, Hills Bank, Two Rivers Bank, U.S. Bank, CBI Bank and Trust, and other area partners, the Project Better Together team created a community-wide Shop Local program to help encourage and motivate local spending at Johnson County local businesses. The Holding Our Own Shop Local program motivated $823,870 of local spending through showcasing and incentivizing local businesses from June to October 2020.

HOO Final Report

Project Better Together Project Updates

Community Input:
Survey response data pulled from our June survey will help us create a new vision for the area that will ultimately shape future policy and actions.

Affordable Housing:
Strategic Doing Committees have begun work to help coordinate existing resources and develop new methods for addressing access and affordability or housing.

Black Lives Matter Demonstrations:
Members of the Project Better Together coalition worked to support peaceful protesting following the murder of George Floyd by providing support stations to protestors. Members also worked to clean graffiti from private businesses and met with organizers to advocate for peaceful protests without property damage.

Pop Up Service Centers:
The United Way of Johnson & Washington Counties, in collaboration with the Iowa City Community School District and their many partner agencies hosted CONNECT Pop Up events last week in North Liberty, Coralville and Iowa City to help people navigate housing assistance, food, internet access for students and a variety of other services available to support families.

BIPOC & Immigrant Business Grant Program:

A portion of the proceeds raised from the Holding Our Own Shop Local program are being reinvested through the Community Foundation of Johnson County to provide grants to BIPOC and Immigrant owned businesses impacted by COVID-19.



Social Justice:
The Project Better Together team continues to have discussions with community leaders, elected officials, and leaders of the Black community. We’ve conducted listening sessions and various webinars, and are participating in implicit bias training as well.

COVID-related Support:
We are currently working on opportunities to expand testing capacity locally and assisting with messaging for the 18-30 age group to encourage mask use

Holding Our Own Shop Local:
The highly successful shop local gift card program was launched in June and continues to build momentum. Community members are rewarded for spending with locally owned businesses with a FREE gift card.

Food Security:
The Food with Love Program was implemented as an immediate response to COVID-19, and efforts are now being made to expand ways to provide food resources to our most vulnerable, while also expanding the capacity for locally grown and sourced food. Two Strategic Doing groups are working simultaneously on these efforts.

The Project Better Together

Steering Committee


Brent Smith, Council Member (North Liberty)
Bruce Harreld, University of Iowa
Cady Gerlach, Shelter House + ICDD Board
David Barker, Board of Regents
David Kieft, University of Iowa
Dave Loebsack, US Representative – 2nd District
Ellen McCabe, Johnson County Housing Trust Fund
Geoff Fruin, City of Iowa City
Jim Conard, West Bank + ICABP Board
Josh Schamberger, Think Iowa City / CVB
Judith Johnson-Mekota, Iowa City VA Medical Center
Kate Moreland, Iowa City Area Development
Katie Knight, United Way of Johnson & Washington Counties
Kelly Hayworth, City of Coralville
Kim Casko, Iowa City Area Business Partnership
Mark Butland/Lori Sundberg, Kirkwood Community College



Janet Godwin, ACT
Matt Degner, Iowa City Community School District
Mazahir Salih, Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa
Mitch Gross, Council Member (Coralville)
Nancy Bird, Iowa City Downtown District
Peter Matthes, University of Iowa
Royceann Porter, Johnson County Board of Supervisors
Ryan Heiar, City of North Liberty
Sean Williams, Mercy Iowa City
Shanti Roundtree, Pearson + Think Iowa City Board
Shelly Maharry, Community Foundation of Johnson County
Suresh Gunasekaran, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics
Susan Mims, Council Member (Iowa City)
Ying Sa, Community CPA + ICAD Investor
Zach Wahls, State Senators/Representatives
Sam Jarvis, Johnson County Public Health
Andre Perry, Englert Civic Theater
Christopher Merrill, University of Iowa Creative Writing Program

Join the Team

Do you have an idea that can improve how we do things as a community? Are you willing to pitch in and make that idea come to life? If so, we want you on our team! Fill out your name, email, and let us know how you’d like to get involved. We’ll be in touch soon.

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