Elkader looking for new MSE director

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


Samantha Baumgartner has resigned from the full-time role as Economic Development and Main Street Elkader (MSE) Director, out of what she described was a “personal conviction to focus on the mission of motherhood” and to remain home to care for her family. 


The decision was reached mutually between the MSE Board and Baumgartner, who said, “while challenging,” it is in the “best interest of the stability and longevity of the Main Street program” and the people it serves. 


In light of this announcement, council member Peggy Lane commented, “In the short time Samantha was with us, she did a great job for the city of Elkader and I’m sorry to see her go, but respect her decision to put her family first.”


As a result of the decision, the council approved the job description associated with filling the role, with the recommendation to post for 30 to 40 hours (full-time) with a pay range of $17 to $18 per hour. In this position, the new director is expected to “focus on the economic health and vitality of the community.”


According to city administrator Jennifer Cowsert, this means the director is the first point of contact for someone asking for information on how or where to start a business and the first point of contact for a current business if they need assistance, have questions or need help with succession planning. On the economic development side, it covers sustaining the population and attracting new residents, including projects like housing and marketing. 


It is expected Baumgartner will act as director until a new person is hired, and at that point, she would continue in some capacity for about 10 hours per week until the transition is finalized. Some remain hopeful she will retain a small role, especially for current and ongoing projects, most notably the hotel project. 


Cowsert indicated there is a possibility this will not result in a complete removal of Baumgartner, but that is dependent on the new hire and Baumgartner’s willingness to continue, both of which are “still being determined.” 


One council member who hopes she will stay, if even in a small role, is Eric Grau. “Samantha brought a lot to this position and was an untiring advocate for Elkader. We are sorry to see her go and hope she can still be involved, particularly for the hotel/motel effort,” he stated.


Mayor Josh Pope echoed similar sentiments. “I am not thinking about this in terms of departure, but rather changing her role. She cannot work for us full-time right now but is able to stay involved on a part-time basis. For that, I am truly thankful,” he said. “She is highly valued as a member of our organization…I think the new director will learn a lot of from her and I am glad she will be able to help with the transition.”


Looking back on her tenure as director, Baumgartner noted the accomplishments, such as securing roughly $400,000 in grant funding for building rehabilitation, completing two existing grant projects for downtown businesses that leveraged nearly $80,000 in state grant funds, installing and launching the “Light Up the Night” downtown project, providing a tour highlighting rural placemaking success with the governor, being featured in the governor’s condition of the state address, expanding the Art in the Park festival and being featured as a Cultural and Entertainment District. 


“We also welcomed 14 new businesses or owner transitions and assisted several others with succession planning while retaining our existing businesses. I cannot take credit for any of these successes, but have enjoyed having the opportunity to be part of making these exciting achievements a reality for our community,” Baumgartner added. 


It’s likely for these reasons that council member Deb Schmidt was effusive in her praise, commenting that Baumgartner is “an asset to Elkader indeed.”


“She certainly will be needed in the future, as we move forward in the possible hiring process of part-time employment. Downtown will miss her wit and outstanding job she did,” Schmidt concluded. 


There are items Baumgartner was not able to accomplish, but wanted to, like work on the phased plan that was recently developed in partnership with Volunteer12, with the goal of getting more local student volunteers. 


“Volunteerism is a critical component of a successful and sustainable community and I would have enjoyed working more on this project,” she said. 


Given the holiday season, application and interview process and time for the committee to decide, Cowsert is looking to have someone in the position shortly after the new year. 


But hiring a new director brings to light something else: with Baumgartner’s departure, the next director will be the fourth in three years. When asked about the frequency of turnover, Cowsert noted that, while concerning, the reasons for the turnover are largely due to life changes. She said they are unfortunate, but understandable, and something that can’t be controlled. 


However, Cowsert said the hiring committee, which consists of MSE board representatives as well as Pope, the chamber director and Cowsert, makes a point to ask questions about a potential candidate’s future plans, in an effort to “gauge the longevity of a candidate,” because constant turnover is not ideal. 


Regardless of who the new hire is, they will have big shoes to fill given what Baumgartner accomplished and her reputation in the community. 


Perhaps council member Tony Hauber summed up the situation best: “Samantha is one of the best Main Street directors I got the pleasure to work with. Not only has she helped initiate, organize, fund and complete many projects in her short tenure, she has laid the groundwork for Main Street Elkader to really achieve a new level of support for the downtown district, and has set a standard for what value an excellent economic director brings to the table.”


“When it comes to continuing to employ her in some capacity, part-time or project basis, I will be a strong advocate for Main Street securing the funding to make that happen,” Hauber added.

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