Sumner – Downtown Difference Makers

March 1, 2021
Sumner – Downtown Difference Makers

Sometimes it takes a small, dedicated group to help a community start down the path to revitalizing their community. People who grew up in the community, previous business owners or young entrepreneurs who have a vision for what their community can become. They join forces and start the ball rolling to change the trajectory of the place they call home.

That is certainly the case for Sumner, Iowa. Located in Bremer County in the northeast corner of the state, Sumner, population 2,175 (2019 estimate) is like many other rural communities across the state.  A once vibrant downtown has seen several landmark businesses close, leaving vacant buildings in need of a new use. It seemed as if the community was in a slow, downward spiral. Enter Marcy Bergman, a local resident and small business owner. Bergman attended the Create Her Conference in Cedar Falls in 2018 where she heard a speaker affiliated with the HGTV show “Home Town” give the keynote address.  She was so inspired by what she heard that she shared it with the local bank board where she was employed, expressing her concern about the downward spiral she was witnessing in her own community. That conversation resulted in a small group from the community traveling to Laurel, Mississippi, to learn how the group there got started with their revitalization efforts.

After returning home from Mississippi, the group continued to research and learn from others here in Iowa. They visited communities similar to Sumner, asking questions, talking to local volunteers and city representatives, taking road trips to see first-hand what others across the state were doing. Bergman recruited Ashley Eckenrod and Holly Schemmel to join her efforts. Both women are from the area and own buildings in the downtown, equally concerned about what they saw happening downtown. Holly’s family were longtime owners of the local grocery store, and Ashleigh owns a small boutique. Their efforts led them to the Iowa Downtown Resource Center where they requested a Downtown Walk Around to gain additional perspective on what they could do to continue to build on the momentum taking place.

City leadership was also transitioning with some newly elected officials interested in making positive changes. The Downtown Walk Around provided the group with several recommendations that could be implemented to continue moving the ball forward. The group launched a community survey to engage the entire community and obtained a great response. Even with a global pandemic forcing many efforts to be placed on hold, they hosted a downtown building tour to showcase vacant commercial space and the upper story opportunities in several buildings. The local lumberyard provided renderings on what the vacant spaces could become. Local volunteers created displays in the vacant storefronts advertising the types of businesses the community would like to see in the future. Businesses were open for shopping and a BBQ truck provided food options with outdoor dining. With good social distancing measures in place, over 200 people turned out to view the properties on a Sunday afternoon. The group continues to work on a more focused effort to fill vacant buildings with businesses identified as needed in their community survey. It sometimes takes a dedicated group, like Bergman, Eckenrod and Schemmel to launch a revitalization effort, and their efforts can truly make a difference for the place they call home.

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