Stephanie Johnston, Editor in Chief
Stephanie Johnston, Editor in Chief

So much of what this magazine covers is about growth—predicting it, planning for it, paying for it—most of it due to the vast migration in the past century from inner cities to the suburbs.

Managing rapid expansion requires a unique skill set. But so does meeting the needs of communities that don't lie in the path of growth. When budgets decline, your customers expect the same level of service.

I attended Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., during the deep national recession of the early 1980s. Bordered by the Mississippi and Rock Rivers, Rock Island is the oldest of the four cities that comprise the Quad Cities: Rock Island and Moline in Illinois; Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. The entire area is gorgeous, with stunning views of lushly wooded ravines and craggy bluffs.

As self-absorbed as only college students can be, I was blissfully unaware of the heroic effort the public works departments were making to maintain the sidewalks on which I jogged, the bridges my friends and I crossed to reach Iowa, and the lovely parks to which we occasionally retreated.

Once a major farm-equipment manufacturing center, Rock Island was losing its industrial base. Bob Hawes, P.E., joined the public works department as city engineer in 1980. Soon after, International Harvester shut down its plant, followed over the next two decades by other manufacturers. With jobs scarce as hen's teeth, Rock Island's population fell from a high of 52,000 in 1960 to 40,000 by 2000.

Meanwhile, the public works department's load increased. When Hawes came on board, the department handled street and electrical maintenance and refuse collection. A few years later, it took over water, sewers, fleets, and engineering.

The department retrenched to provide these services with fewer dollars. Ultimately, budget cuts reduced the number of employees by 18%. At one point, shortly after being promoted to public works director, Hawes and his department heads were forced to serve as first responders.

Over time, technological improvements enabled Hawes's team to provide these services with fewer bodies. Operations like weed mowing, slabjacking, and utility cut repairs were outsourced. Today, the city is applying gambling boat revenues to fund its street capital improvements. It recently hiked water and sewer rates to finance a $67 million waste-water system upgrade.

Just when you think you've handled the last big issue, along comes another wave of change. But thanks to your dedication and uncanny problem-solving skills, you stay a step ahead of the game.

Which in itself is an invaluable contribution to the nation's overall growth. America's communities have never needed you more—whether or not they realize it.