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November 7, 2003

Two employers equals one great job

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by Anne Krapfl
Forget that stereotype about government workers being assigned to drab, box-like office buildings. Mark Wagner's office features waist-high, fresh water aquariums, a towboat simulator, three-story dredge barge and live alligators and otters.

Wagner is the education director for the $57 million National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque. In a unique collaboration, ISU Extension pays 20 percent of his salary package.

Wagner oversees a staff of 40 full- and part-time employees and works with some of the 160-plus volunteers who staff dozens of indoor and outdoor "stations" at the museum that focus on historical or science-related aspects of the Mississippi River.

He also has created internships for students at area colleges and universities, including Clarke and Loras colleges, the University of Dubuque and the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. According to the interns' interests, their work has focused on biology, history, general science and communications. Students from Dubuque's Central Alternative High School also assist the education staff.

"I'm still figuring out the process of having two employers, but it's working well," Wagner said. "I give my best to the museum and at the same time, what I do is part of the outreach for Extension's Dubuque office."

Vice provost for Extension Stan Johnson said Extension is pleased to be part of the museum.

"Economic development is more than manufacturing. It's about quality of life in communities and creating choices for people about where they want to live," Johnson said. "We had an opportunity to enhance the quality of the river museum because of our strength in education and training.

"We can help the community of Dubuque be successful. But our role there also helps us be successful," he noted.

Wagner, a 1972 graduate of Iowa State in fisheries and wildlife biology, spent nearly 30 years working in conservation for Grundy and Jasper counties. The museum's strength in science education appealed to him, so he applied for the job. (It also didn't hurt that he grew up in Dubuque County and had few reservations about heading "home.")

Since it opened late last June, more than 150,000 guests have visited the museum. And since school started this fall, three to four school groups arrive daily for tours. Wagner said the goal is to draw as many as 270,000 visitors annually.

"We're going to get through this school year and see how school attendance is holding," he said. "Our thought is that once the museum is established and many of the area schools have visited us, we'll go to the schools."

The revitalization of Dubuque's riverfront, including the museum, a hotel, indoor water park and convention center, has been a boost to tourism in the city. This year, Dubuque will host 30,000 convention delegates, up 150 percent from 2002, according to the Dubuque Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

... Becoming the Best
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Published by: University Relations,
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