Three Iowa cities — Ottumwa, West Branch and West Union — have been designated as “Main Street” communities. The state will pay consultants 100-thousand dollars to provide technical assistance to residents in each community.
Iowa Department of Economic Development director Mary Lawyer says that assistance is very targeted. “Architectural redesign assistance, assistance on how to bring business into the downtown area, renovate the…housing capabilities in the area and restore the area to its historic nature,” Lawyer says.
Residents in each of the three communities are ready to act, according to Lawyer. “There’s a lot of community support behind it. It’s not just, you know, one entity driving it or one person driving it. It’s a cross-section of the community driving this change that they want in their downtown,” Lawyer says. “What we’re finding is that it’s a lot of volunteer hours are needed in our to do this renovation.”
Iowa’s “Main Street” program is 20 years old and has helped 34 cities redevelop downtown areas. Since 1986, state officials estimate there’s been about five-hundred-58 million dollars of private investment to revitalize the Main Streets in those 34 communities.
Lawyer says there have been an impressive amount of volunteer hours “invested” in those downtown areas, too. One-point-two million hours of volunteer work have been logged in the 34 “Main Street” communities, according to Lawyer. “It’s really about the readiness of the town. Are they prepared from a manpower/volunteer standpoint? Do they have some historic significance that can be unveiled in the community?” Lawyer asks.
“A lot of our downtowns have put different facades over historic buildings and is there something there that can be uncovered and unearthed?” She says there’s a lot of hard work ahead for Ottumwa, West Branch and West Union.
Lawyer says each of the new “Main Street” towns have made a “long journey” already in identifying properties for renovation and lining up the volunteer base, but she says “now the real work begins” in completing the renovations and bringing in business and housing. When the automobile became more common, shoppers became mobile and shopping malls and so-called strip malls began popping up along the edges of communities and in city suburbs to draw business away from traditional Main Street areas.
Lawyer suggests this program is helping to reverse that trend. “I think more and more people are looking at getting back to their roots, getting back to the history of their towns,” Lawyer says. “You know, we aren’t that old a country when you compare (the United States) to other countries, and we’re finally getting to the point where we can look back and have some history, and people are getting nostalgic about that and wanting to come back and see what that building was, what was its historic significance and see its real beauty from its original state.”
With the addition of Ottumwa, West Branch and West Union, there are now 37 “Main Street” communities in Iowa. The other 34 are Adel, Bedford, Bloomfield, Bonaparte, Burlington, Cedar Falls, Central City, Charles City, Conrad, Corning, Dubuque, Dunlap, Elkader, Greenfield, Hamilton County, Hampton, Iowa Falls, Keokuk, Le Mars, Marcus, Marshalltown, Mount Pleasant, New Hampton, Mason City, Osceola, Oskaloosa, Ogden, Sigourney, Spencer, Sac City, Waterloo, Waverly, State Center and West Des Moines/Valley Junction.