GD&T hears presentation on Main Street Iowa program


Guttenberg Development & Tourism elected two new board members at their annual dinner. Front from left are director Mary Beth Theis, board president Tom Augustyn, new board member Sadie Hefel, and Janette Simon; back row, Dwight Hughes, Jane Staebler, and new board member Molly Moser. Not pictured are Andy Reimer and Jane Thein. (Press photo by Shelia Tomkins)

By Molly Moser

Since it began 28 years ago, Main Street Iowa has spanned the farm crisis, four recessions, the dot-com bust, and the real-estate crash. In spite of those obstacles, there has been growth in net new businesses every year in Main Street Iowa districts. Projects in Main Street districts generate an average of 623 jobs for Iowans and over $19 million in paychecks each year. Even during the recent national recession, construction activity in Main Street districts increased 250-350%.

This remarkable program was the topic of conversation at the annual Guttenberg Development & Tourism dinner last Monday evening at the Stadium. Robin Bostrum, Program Director for Main Street West Union and the Turkey River Recreational Corridor, spoke to a large group about the improvements Main Street has allowed her community to make. 

“We were having the same issues that many small towns are having in Iowa,” admitted Bostrum. Decreasing population, retaining youth, and revitalizing the town in general were concerns for West Union, a community with a consolidated school district and a strong agriculture base. “We looked at other communities our size, and learned about the Main Street program,” said Bostrum.

Main Street Iowa is a program dedicated to improving the social and economic well being of Iowa's communities by assisting in capitalizing on the unique identity, assets and character of their historic commercial district. “It’s an economic development program within the context of historic preservation,” Bostrum summarized.

The Main Street Approach© is based on the four points listed below as well as eight guiding principles, all integrated to create a positive, identifiable image for downtown districts. 

Economic Restructuring involves diversifying the commercial district economy by identifying potential market niches, finding new uses for vacant or underused spaces, and improving business practices.

Design uses appropriate concepts to enhance the visual quality of the commercial district (buildings, signs, window displays, landscaping, and environment).

The organization element brings together the public sector, private groups and individual citizens, with coordination by a paid program manager, to work more effectively in the commercial district.

By promoting the downtown in a positive manner, a community can begin to focus on the commercial district as a source of community pride, social activity and economic development potential.

“Once you’re in the program, there’s a lot of intensive training that takes place,” said Bostrum. She praised state staff, who helped West Union accomplish its goals by identifying funding sources, providing four annual mandatory training sessions, and connecting the community with other resources.

"It's partnerships all throughout the city," said city manager Mary Willett, who came from a Main Street community. "You become part of this big network of people that have been in Main Street, so you're not reinventing the wheel." 

West Union became a green pilot community with its street and sidewalk renovation project. With Main Street’s help, the city completed a $10.2 million downtown renovation, including six blocks of porous paved streets and sidewalks. The street renovation was extended all the way to the highway to direct traffic downtown. According to Bostrum, $7 million of the total project cost was funded by outside sources.

Following their green infrastructure initiative, West Union implemented a district-wide geothermal heating and cooling system that reaches all 60 of their downtown buildings. This project was completely funded by outside grants. Following training on adaptive reuse, they’ve begun rehabilitating second story living spaces above downtown businesses and now have 12 new residential units. 

“Before Main Street, we never would have tackled those kind of projects because we thought it was above and beyond what we could manage,” said Bostrum. 

For more information about Main Street Iowa, visit http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/MainStreetIowa.

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