Downtowns Learning by Example … Not a One Size Fits All

March 1, 2021
Downtowns Learning by Example … Not a One Size Fits All

The Iowa Downtown Resource Center provides technical assistance to all Iowa downtowns that accept help. Sometimes that simply means getting communities to talk to each other and learn from success stories and challenges. Can a small town learn from a big city? Can an urban district learn from a tiny town? I think so. Many of the issues are the same, for example, downtown vacancy or aging building stock. Most likely it is the solution or implementation that can vary widely. One size doesn’t fit all. Small towns are sometimes challenged by the resources available to implement or quite possibly the feasibility based on their local market. Large cities on the other hand may have their own problems such as sprawl or competing shopping areas. We frequently get calls for help from extremely small communities that perhaps have lost most of their downtown appeal. We work with them knowing we must meet them in their current place. Usually, this means taking small steps to generate local interest and momentum.

Recently, the Iowa Downtown Resource Center and Empower Rural Iowa conducted a small town survey for communities with populations under 1,200. The survey focused on the health of the downtowns in those communities. Approximately 200 communities participated. More than half of those were communities with less than 400 population. The results were interesting ... quite different than what we would hear in larger cities. We will use the results by reacting to small town issues in our travels, conferences, workshops, etc., but we also received good information from communities we think we can help. We started by selecting seven communities to receive Downtown Walk Around Assessments. Congratulations to Graettinger, West Point, Carson, Macedonia, Keota, Allison and Panora. Here are some interesting survey results:

  • When describing downtown, nearly 25% of those surveyed focused on a small mix of businesses. Some saw this as a negative while others greatly valued this business core.
  • The greatest need downtown…more businesses, especially retail. Many indicated a specific need for restaurants. Grocery and gas stations were high on the list. Cleaning up of properties is also a high priority.
  • An average of 6.7 businesses exist in downtowns of survey takers. An average of 1.37 of those are retail.
  • What businesses could succeed in your downtown:  restaurants, coffee, gas station, beauty shops, grocery?
  • Best downtown feature: park/playground/shelter, cleanliness, pride, friendly, a specific business.
  • Only 16% of communities see the condition of downtown buildings as high quality.
  • When asked what creative downtown projects were done in the last five years, the most popular responses were parks, playgrounds, Freedom Rocks, sidewalks and specific buildings.
  • 85% of respondents say the downtown is worth saving (meaning 15% think it is not!)

    (contact Iowa Downtown Resource Center for a complete summary of the survey results)

A few great examples of recent small town success in Iowa…

Danville:  new fire station

Batavia:  new city hall

Grand Junction:  new community center for local events

Swisher took over an empty city lot that had been the site of a gas station, cleaned it up and raised money for a children’s playground/park.

Lohrville received one of several community catalyst building remediation grants.
Lohrville’s project will be the rehab of an old service station building.

Allerton revamped an old pharmacy and turned it into a gathering place for an old-fashioned soda.

Minburn relocated their depot and turned it into a restaurant on the bike trail.

Essex updated its banners, and a local citizen donates flower pots and flowers that sit outside businesses.

Preston renovated the old city hall building and converted it into incentivized incubator space.  The Humming Arrow Boutique has done business there for 18 months.

Northboro installed a three-flagpole memorial space in the city park and installed new playground equipment.  

Alden added an amazing stage to the park, one of the best in Hardin County.

Macedonia completed installation of a black iron railing, and updated benches and planter boxes. The city is in the beginning phase of an IEDA downtown façade project.

Carson is also working on a downtown façade project and recently received a community catalyst grant.

Fremont revamped their pocket park and added new benches, tables and plantings.

Graettinger completed a streetscape project with new lights, curb gutters, storm sewers and sidewalks.

Hopkinton coordinates a car show that attracts over 500 cars and a Monsters on Main Halloween event.

Woodburn does a Labor Day Parade and barbecue.

Imogene completed a trailhead campground and restroom project that brings visitors to the community and downtown.

Alleman competed in a metro waste program collecting 264 pounds of plastic shopping bags.  They defeated much larger competition and won a park bench.

Farmersburg works with a local youth group on a community flower pot project.

Glidden (city) purchased the old newspaper building and turned it into a community wellness center.

McCausland saved a historic bank building and turned it into city hall.

Gilmore City painted a mural of the city on the side of a downtown building.

Thurman has pitched banners that give a history of the town, and they purchased new Christmas lights.

Correctionville had a local family revitalize an old grocery store and open a coffee shop.

Hills built a city park stage to host music in the park as well as movies.

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