The mayor of Story County’s largest community is humble about his position. “I’m not doing this because I want to say, ‘Hey, I’m the mayor of Ames,’” he said. “The citizens of Ames have given me an amazing opportunity to serve them and I take it very seriously … that I’ve been entrusted with (the position).”
Haila, 63, is a well-spoken man, who conveys that he enjoys serving others and finding ways to meet people’s needs.
Born in Chicago, Haila’s family moved to Baltimore, Md., back to Chicago and then to southern California during his early youth. They were in southern California while he went from fifth grade through high school. Then his father got a job in Des Moines and the family came to Iowa. Haila said he thought about staying in California to attend college and study architecture, but instead he came to Iowa with his family and enrolled at Iowa State from 1972 to 1976. He loved ISU.
“I think a lot of people fall in love with their alma maters,” he said, noting that’s where young adult lives are formed and where many meet their significant others. ISU is where he met his wife, Mary (Fitzer), who was an Iowa farm girl from Durant. “She’d lived on that farm her whole life,” he said, noting their very different upbringings.
The two met while taking part in Campus Crusade for Christ, a faith group on campus, but it was in their senior year, working food service together, where Haila said the relationship really took off.
Once married, the Hailas lived in Boone, where they raised two sons (both Boone High School and ISU graduates) and where Haila started his business, HAILA Architecture Structure Planning, Ltd. In 2009, Haila moved his business to Ames, and in 2011, he and his wife moved to Ames. In fact, all the Hailas, including their two sons, both their wives and each couple’s four children — both families have two boys and two girls — all live in Ames. “One son lives three blocks away and the other is about six to seven minutes away. We’re both (he and his wife) blessed to have the opportunity to see them several times a week.”
Haila sold his business in 2016, but has remained a part of the company as a part-time consultant. “I had no intention to run for mayor (at the time the business was being sold),” he said. “That sale had been in the works for several years.” But, the fact that he was no longer running his business full-time did give Haila the flexibility he needed when he did decide to run for office.
Why did he run for mayor? It’s not a quick answer for Haila, who explained that what led up to it were a number of things he’d been involved with in Ames. One of those involvements was helping reinvigorate the Campustown Action Association, which represents business and property owners in the Campustown area. He also served as president of that group. “Through that (commitment), I started attending some City Council meetings. I was impressed with the leadership of the community and the support they expressed for Campustown and the rest of the community.”
Haila became involved in other boards and groups in Ames. He served on the CyRide board for almost four years. He served on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, the Ames Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. And through all these involvements, he had interactions with the city of Ames, and became intrigued with serving the city, maybe by running for City Council. That was his initial thought.
“Then … in December of 2016, a couple people I looked up to … approached me about running for mayor,” he said. So, he began talking to a number of people in the community about that possibility. He wanted to think critically about his skills and leadership qualities and determine if others felt he had what it would take to become mayor. “Most importantly, I needed my family to be supportive,” he said. And on all fronts, Haila received support and encouragement to run for mayor.
His role as mayor of Ames, he said, is to be the face of the city government for the community, to be a community leader, to listen to what residents are saying and to run council meetings. And possibly most important of all is to be a community servant. “I take that seriously,” he said, and he added, the members of the Ames City Council do, too. “We all see ourselves as servants to the public.” Haila said the city government representatives aim to listen to the public and then make decisions based on what will be positive for the majority of residents.
When he considers where the community stands at this point in time, many things are positive for Ames, he said. “The job market is incredibly strong. There’s a lot of investment going on in the community, and the city, too, is investing a lot in infrastructure, streets, park improvements and so forth. There are 10 new businesses coming to town (at the time of this interview in late January) and 15 businesses are looking to expand. We have a growing diversity of commerce … the research park is really a positive. We have great schools that are routinely and annually close to or at the top of various ratings. People want to move to Ames; they want to live here.”
As for challenges, the one Haila thinks about most is strengthening the relationship between the city and the university and its students and organizations. “We need the university to be successful and vice versa,” he said. Housing is another challenge — specifically in finding more housing that’s affordable for people who need homes in the $150,000 to mid-$200,000 range and in the under $150,000 market.
And while it’s not a huge issue, Haila said the Ames community needs to continually work on diversity and inclusiveness and strengthen its relations with people of all cultures and walks of life who come to Ames. “That’s an issue all over the country,” he said.
Making his job as mayor easier in many ways are the great people who surround him. “I enjoy working with top-notch people. We have an amazing city staff and really great council people.”
When he’s not busy with the responsibilities of being mayor or the part-time work of consulting, Haila said he most likes to spend time with family. He and his wife enjoy reading, traveling a little bit and being very involved in their faith community and their church, Ames-Des Moines City Church. If he ever had the time for it, he also enjoys garden and model railroads, but right now, there’s not a lot of time for that.
“I hear you need about a year to get your feet on the ground (as mayor),” and Haila, and he’s making sure to put everything into serving the constituents in that role. He wants for Ames to continue to be prosperous. “A community needs to be growing. Whether it’s a city, church, volunteer group, business … there needs to be a positive forward movement and growth to remain healthy.” He noted that so many things within a city, and their success, is all intertwined. I’m a big picture guy. … I have the capacity to understand how it all works together. That’s part of leadership.”