Downtown Difference Maker - Janet Kuskie-Hermsen
Please share a little bit of personal background. Where did you grow up? If not in Iowa, how did you end up relocating to Iowa?
I grew up in a small town in western Nebraska with less than 1,200 people. When I was a junior in high school, I was a Rotary Youth Exchange Student and lived in Finland from 2010-2011. Being able to live in a different country and experience another culture prepared me for many things in life.
During my senior year in high school, I was recruited to play college golf for William Penn University, where I also became involved with student government and served as the Student Government President when I was a junior. During my time at William Penn, I got to know the leadership in Oskaloosa and really felt like I was a part of the community.
It was not until I attended Leadership Iowa University that I gave Iowa a REAL CHANCE. That program opened my eyes to what Iowa has to offer and the amazing companies and jobs that are right HERE. Leadership Iowa University is why I am still in Iowa TODAY.
At a networking event, I met the director of Human Resources from Musco Sports Lighting, LLC. That day CHANGED my life. I ended up being selected for a tax internship during my senior spring semester. Three weeks into the internship, I was asked if I had any interest in applying for a full-time position. I thought to myself: “There is no way they would pick ME - I haven’t even graduated.” But they DID! I started my professional career two days after graduation.
Why do you love where you live? What attracted you to live there? What keeps you there?
I love living in Oskaloosa because you get the small-town charm while being in a small city. People know who you are; there is always someone you can call if you need help. Oskaloosa has undergone many major improvements since my arrival; it is exciting to be a part of and witness these changes. I want to continue to have a seat at the table, play an active role in the process, and experience all the joy and satisfaction that positive change has to offer. For me, putting myself out there in college and getting exposure (while building a reputation) really helped me feel WELCOME in Oskaloosa.
I am so grateful for all the amazing opportunities and that is why I know Oskaloosa is where I am meant to be. My husband and I bought a house and have decided to call Oskaloosa HOME. This town is so unique. There are so many incredible possibilities for Oskaloosa and Mahaska County. I love living in a city that has invested in the heart of downtown, including three phases of a Downtown Façade Improvement Program. Plus, our county is an industry powerhouse in southeast Iowa. How many people can say they live in a town of 11,000 with headquarters of international companies? I can.
Thinking about your present role in downtown revitalization initiative, what are you most passionate about related to your role in the local initiative? What is your favorite part/activity/task related to your local initiative?
I think the reason I am so passionate about our community is because I love volunteering and the relationships you build.
I joined Main Street Oskaloosa because I saw how important the heart of a community is. If it is vibrant and thriving, the rest of the community will be vibrant and thriving as well. I ran for city council because other leaders believed in me and thought I could bring a different voice and passion to council. I know that while I am in Oskaloosa, I am going to do my all to be part of positive change for future generations to come.
I love being part of the process to improve our community. That is what I am most passionate about. Seeing a project go through a life cycle is so rewarding. Others may not understand why or what is happening. But when it is done and you have something to show for all your hard work, that feeling is priceless.
I also really enjoy working with a wide range of people with different skills. The knowledge you gain from collaboration is so valuable. You grow as a person and when the next project comes up, you are better equipped to make it happen.
What is the local Main Street organization’s vision for the future of the downtown? What is your vision for the future of downtown?
Main Street Oskaloosa just celebrated its 35th anniversary. I am so honored to be part of the organization and see the importance of the Main Street program. Sometimes I find myself wondering what Oskaloosa would look like if we had never become a Main Street community. I cannot even envision it. The Main Street program is vital to our community and other communities around the state and nation. Because of the Main Street program, Oskaloosa has been able to invest millions of public and private dollars into our community. Programs like Painting with Lights would have never started. It works because we have community, city and organizations buy into it.
My vision for our downtown is to keep growing and help our businesses be successful. Oskaloosa is currently the only community in Iowa to have been awarded three CDBG façade improvement grants. I want to help celebrate our success as a community. If we do not share our story, others will never know the hard work that has taken place to get us where we are today.
What are some of the drastic changes you have witnessed in your downtown in recent years? What one or two recent successes attributed to the downtown revitalization initiative?
I lived on the square in an upper story apartment for a few years. From the beautiful planters that tell the music history of Oskaloosa to the vibrant banners, the new murals and the iconic bandstand, every day you would see something new or little things that would catch the eye. No doubt the façade project has given downtown Oskaloosa a facelift, making it an even more inviting place to be. People have also taken pride that our downtown is a beautiful and welcoming place to gather. Summertime in downtown Oskaloosa is magical with its live music in The Alley, city band concerts on the square and all the events put on by hundreds of volunteers.
Being part of Oskaloosa Main Street has been so rewarding. Seeing new projects and the community come together during hard times shows that we will do anything in our power to keep our small businesses alive. I was so proud to help head the ‘Support Small, Shop Smart’ campaign during the beginning of COVID-19. Oskaloosa Main Street, with financial support of the Mahaska Chamber and Development Group, came together to help our businesses at a dire time of need. Our efforts helped keep dollars in our community. Our Wish Book was the biggest success that came during the holiday season and has since been part of our plan going forward. In times of crisis, you see the best in people. People want to help. I know I played a small part in things, but I am so proud I put myself in a position to be involved.
You are undoubtedly very involved in many aspects of community development. What do you do for fun and leisure activity?
I love a good dark roast coffee with cream. It probably is more of an obsession! My husband and I have season tickets to Iowa State Football. We love to watch sports, try different restaurants and go for long bike rides. I tend a large garden in the summer. We also love to play trivia and board games while enjoying craft beer.
Anything else you would like to share about yourself?
I hope what I am doing inspires at least one person to see they can have an impact on their community. All you must do is try.
Share something no one knows about you?
I always thought I would live in a big city, but I would not be where I am today without my experiences here in Oskaloosa.
If you have questions or comments about this article, you can contact Janet Kuskie-Hermsen at email@example.com.