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Cold, but fun
Cold, but fun: Cone Park workers like winter rec jobs

SIOUX CITY -- The cold temperatures might make some think twice about working in a city park where tasks include routing people down snowy inner tube lanes.

But then, there's the freedom of being outdoors, plus, yes, free hot chocolate.

So, while patrons who come to Cone Park enjoy their skating experiences and tubing at thrilling speeds, the primarily young people who serve as park workers for the city also relish their jobs.

"You get to play in the snow, and there's nothing better than that," said Cone employee Gabbie Jansen, 18, of Sioux City.

Admittedly, conditions can be brisk working outside, Jansen said. The cold spell that enveloped the Upper Midwest and Siouxland resulted in closing of Cone Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, due to way-below-zero wind chill readings.

"That wouldn't have been fun for anyone," said Jansen, a West High School graduate who is a Briar Cliff University freshman.

"If you don't like the cold, this isn't the job for you. But if you bundle up, it isn't bad."

Jansen is working at Cone Park now for a second winter season, which matches the number of years the park has been in operation, at 3800 Line Drive in the Singing Hills area.

More than 20,000 people visited Cone Park during its first winter, from mid-December to mid-March. The tubing hill, which usually has at least six lanes open, can accommodate up to 225 users during three-hour sessions.

Additionally, there is a 5,400-square-foot ice skating rink. Next to the main tubing hill this year is the new Blue Bunny Hill, a shorter hill designed for people of all ages. Riders on both hills utilize a carpet lift to get them to the tops.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Matt Salvatore said the crew of primarily part-time employees, who work under the direction of John Byrnes, are a strong group. Byrnes worked as an intern at the park last winter, and was promoted to be the on-site manager this year, due to his exuberant performance of Cone tasks, Salvatore said.

Byrnes, 26, is a University of Northern Iowa graduate who has a background in winter recreation activities.

"I truly love it. Truly, it is so much fun. Managing Cone Park is awesome," Byrnes said.

He manages 40 workers, the overwhelming majority of which are teenagers working part-time, termed Winter Recreation Attendants, in the city parlance.

"They are a little bit older this year. I really like this group," Byrnes said.

Jansen said the learning curve is easier for second-year workers like herself, so "this year has gone a lot smoother."

Most nights, there are 10 employees, with seven working outside duties. Through cross-training, many perform multiple tasks, from routing patrons up the hill to overseeing the downhill descents to working inside the lodge selling concessions.

"They are charged with the safety of the hill, and we don't take that lightly," Byrnes said.

Like lifeguards at a swimming pool, they rotate duties throughout a shift, plus get breaks from the sometimes cold temperatures. That's where the free hot chocolate comes in.

"We don't freeze them to death," Byrnes said.

Additionally, a few Cone Park workers don't work directly with the public, and begin an overnight job many days. After the park closes at 9 p.m., those employees minutes later drive equipment to sculpt the hill after the impact of the tubers.

"It is just a good time to groom when the sun isn't out," Salvatore said.

In working the five- or six-hour shifts, Jansen prefers the outside to inside duties.  The inside tasks include selling concessions, admissions and making reservations for busy days, such as weekends and the popular Snow Glow evenings that sell out.

"I love working outside, because you get to interact with more people, and get the fun parts of it, like spinning them at the start of the (tubing) ride," said Jansen.

Reese Miller, a senior at East High School, is another Cone Park worker.

"Everyone really gets along pretty well. Obviously, when you are with people a lot, it can be like with siblings, with a bit of bickering. But it is good camaraderie," Miller said.

His favorite task is routing people riding tubes at the top of hill, where the key point is spacing them out, for safety sake, until the prior person reaches the bottom of the hill.

"I really enjoy a chance to work outside, even in the winter," Miller said. "It is usually not too cold."

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

Sioux City Musketeers' Jordan Steinmetz, right, and Muskegon Lumberjacks' Matthew Staudacher compete for the puck during a hockey game in Sioux City, Iowa on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. Sioux City Journal Photo by Justin Wan

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Iowa Business Council wants more diverse, robust state workforce

SIOUX CITY -- Georgia Van Gundy, the executive director and board secretary of the Iowa Business Council, said Friday that Iowa has work to do to attract a skilled and diverse workforce to the state.

"Everybody talks about population and diversity, and we want to get something done in this area," Van Gundy said in a Friday morning meeting with the Journal editorial board. She was accompanied by Wells Enterprises Inc. president and CEO Mike Wells. 

The Council on Monday recently released its 2019 competitive dashboard report, which examines Iowa's business competitiveness in five metrics -- economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness and demographics and diversity. 

Iowa's demographics and diversity rating was poor. The state is the 46th least-diverse state, according to the report, and the state is 30th in overall population. Only 14.1 percent of the state's population is non-white. 

Van Gundy said the state needs to find a way to attract skilled workers, and in general to increase the state's population and diversity. 

Wells and Van Gundy stopped short of taking a position on immigration, which in theory would bring in more diverse workers. Van Gundy told the Cedar Rapids Gazette this week that immigration is "something we're going to tease out." 

"When we look at diversity, it isn't so much about immigration as much as it is, what can we do to make the state of Iowa look similar in diversity of those folks that live here, similar in demographics of what we see across the United States?" Wells said. 

For Wells, that means businesses need to embrace and encourage affordable housing options, local quality-of-life and cultural offerings that workers find appealing, as well as bilingual accommodations in the workplace. 

Van Gundy said IBC is "putting together a group of thought leaders" in Iowa to examine the diversity and population issue. 

Policies supported by IBC include Gov. Kim Reynolds' $20 million recommendation for workforce housing tax credits program and reforming childcare benefits regulations to allow recipients to earn more money without losing their benefits. Benefits currently begin being cut off when a recipient's pay goes above 145 percent of the poverty level. 

Van Gundy called it "the childcare cliff effect," and Wells said a number of people find themselves "trapped" in un- or under-employment due to the risk of losing their state childcare benefits. 

"That's when individuals are not taking pay raises, because they lose too much of their childcare benefits in order to do that," she said. The group supports raising the scale to 200 percent of the poverty level, "So that they could continue to increase their income and not significantly lose their benefits." 

Both Van Gundy and Wells spoke at length about Iowa's efforts to improve the state's quality of life. The number of active primary care physicians in Iowa decreased to 82.8 per 100,000 in 2018, and it appears that doctors and other educated people are leaving the state for more attractive opportunities in other parts of the country. 

"Our challenge as a state is to create those opportunities in these communities, so that when you're a well-educated 20-something, you don't feel like you've got to run to the east and the west coast to get the 'life experience' that you're looking for," Wells said.