Q&A with Ames’ City Manager

Steve Schainker is the city manager of Ames.

What is your favorite memory of college?

After growing up in the Midwest, I attended college in Connecticut. The move to the East Coast was an interesting one, because it was so different for me. All the familiar things about home were replaced. I had a new address, new friends, a new daily routine and a whole new world of places to explore. When I think back about what I loved about attending the University of Connecticut, it was pushing myself into experiencing something outside my comfort zone, and I made it a great adventure.

What is your favorite thing about Iowa State or Ames?

My favorite thing about Ames became clear to me again shortly after the severe storm we experienced in July. After wind gusts of 70 mph blew through the entire community, we were left with downed power lines, trees snapped in half and debris everywhere. Although it wasn’t a tornado, the storm damaged property in all parts of the community—something we haven’t seen in Ames in years. Yet, the very next day people came out to help. They immediately began checking on their neighbors and clearing away downed trees. I saw plenty of kids hauling branches away, and entire families were helping one another. My favorite thing about this community is how we pull together and look out for each other.

Where is your favorite place to eat in town?

While I do enjoy sitting down at my kitchen table eating a meal prepared together with my lovely wife, I also love to eat out. I would encourage students to explore all the great restaurants we have in Ames. I’m sure you’ll run into me.

How was your freshman year?

As I mentioned before, I went to school at University of Connecticut, which was thousands of miles away from my hometown of University City, Mo. Even though I was looking forward to attending college and getting away from home, it made those first few months pretty hard. I never expected to feel nostalgia for the very things I couldn’t wait to leave. That was a surprise. But it didn’t take long to get comfortable with my new life, and certainly by my second semester, I felt like Connecticut had become very comfortable. I had always been a pretty good student, but I remember being surprised by the course work and amount of studying I needed to maintain my grades. In fact, I learned the hard way that attending class is a necessity, not an option.

What was the most embarrassing moment of your freshman year? Did you make any silly freshman mistakes?

During the first semester of my freshman year, I couldn’t believe how much free time I thought I had. Without my parents or teachers constantly checking on me or making sure I was prepared for class, I wasn’t disciplined about studying.

At the end of the semester, I earned the first C I had ever received. It was a real wake-up call that I had to buckle down and devote time to academics. Nobody was going to make me study. I had to do it myself. Also, it’s a lot harder to bring your GPA up than it is to bring it down.

What advice would you give to incoming freshman?

I would tell incoming freshman to get out and meet people. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. I realize it can be hard if you’re more of an introvert, but college is not the time stay with your circle of friends from high school. This is your opportunity to push yourself, meet new people and experience new things.

When did you know what you wanted to do with your life? When did it click? When did learning become fun?

My first job in high school was as a camp counselor for the University City, Mo., Parks and Recreation Department. It was just a summer job, but I met the city manager and learned more about the role of local government. In college, at the University of Connecticut, I majored in political science. I was required to take classes outside my major, and that was a great opportunity to learn more about other areas in which I had interests. I would recommend students make the best use of their electives—especially those students who are unsure of what they want to do professionally. In the end, I was torn between a career in law or government. Eventually, I decided to earn my master’s degree in public administration at Indiana University and start a career in city government.

How did you get to where you are now in your career?

When I came to Ames nearly 31 years ago, it was never with the intention that this was where I’d spend the majority of my career. After completing my Master of Public Administration at Indiana University, I had an internship in Webster Groves, Mo. I followed the internship with my first job as a budget systems analyst with the City of Kansas City, Mo.

When I had the opportunity to come to Ames as the assistant city manager, I jumped at the chance. We were attracted to Ames because of the quality of life it offered, the great neighborhoods, parks and schools. Of course, Iowa State only added to the richness of the community.

At the time, moving to Ames was just one more step in my career. Three years later, I became city manager. As our kids grew older, my wife and I continued to be very happy living in Ames. Both of us enjoy challenging, stimulating careers and we continue to love living in Ames. It’s a very good fit for us.

Describe your job. What are your duties?

The city manager carries out the day-to-day responsibilities of running the city organization. I oversee 18 departments and divisions including public works, water and pollution control, parks and recreation, finance, Ames electric services, Ames police, Ames fire and planning and housing. I report directly to the Ames City Council, which is the policy-making arm of government. The City Council makes laws, ordinances and policy, and it is my job to make sure all of these are carried out or enforced. Really, local government works very much like a business. I serve as the chief executive officer. I ensure the business runs smoothly, and the council plays the same role as the board of directors.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

My job is different every day. I don’t just focus on one problem or work with just one department. I work on a variety of issues that require partnering with other people, other levels of government and other community organizations. I enjoy the diversity and the challenges.

What was your proudest accomplishment of the last year?

This has been a great summer for Ames residents because we opened the Furman Aquatic Center over Memorial Day weekend. The facility represents a great partnership with Iowa State, since it was constructed on university property. The aquatic center is close to campus, and I encourage every student to visit. The facility features tube slides, a drop slide, a lazy river and a 50-meter pool. It’s a fantastic community asset and lots of fun for all ages.

What is your biggest goal for next year?

The focus of my position is implementing the goals of the City Council. The City Council has identified six major goals:

Go green to promote environmental sustainability

Promote economic development

Create and promote a community vision

Rejuvenate Campustown

Strengthen and protect our neighborhoods for a United Ames

Further streamline and improve government processes

What do you think is the biggest issue currently facing students?

The rising cost of education resulting in the increase average debt-load of ISU students, has always been a concern. There’s no doubt it’s getting more expensive to attend a university these days. But another concern is the current economy and career prospects for graduates. It’s a very competitive climate out there for jobs, and students need to do whatever they can differentiate themselves in job interview. They need to do well in school, take advantage of internships, and get relevant job experience to stand out. Even if it’s a unpaid internship or a volunteer experience, students need to be thinking about what kind of candidate they will be for a job opening when they graduate.

What are you looking forward to in the next year?

We live in a great community, and we have been recognized for the wonderful quality of life we enjoy here. Recently, CNN/Money.com noted Ames on its top 10 “Best Places to Live” in the United States survey. Through focusing on the City Council goals, I’m looking forward to making Ames even better. These are exciting times, and we are pursuing many new initiatives. We need to keep our momentum moving forward.

What are must-do and most-see things for students?

That is a excellent question, and I have a very long list. Here is a partial list of the things ISU students should absolutely do while they are living in Ames:

Walk, jog or bike around Ada Hayden Heritage Pake in north Ames.

Swim at the Furman Aquatic Center

Enjoy miles and miles of Ames’ bike paths

Play a game of disc golf at the Carroll Marty Disc Golf

Play nine holes at Homewood Golf Course

Go ice skating at the Ames/ISU Ice Arena

* Visit at least one new park every month — there are 34

Shop Ames: Visit one of our numerous commercial districts

Enjoy an event at the City Auditorium

Attend a Bandshell concert

Click on the city’s website or watch City Channel 12.