By Sarah Binder

MARION–Marion Square Park is surrounded on three sides by small, local businesses, including one of Gae Sharp-Richardson’s, but she calls it an island.

Even on days when people flow Uptown for a festival, it’s simply too difficult to get them to cross traffic-filled Seventh Avenue and visit the shops. She’s hoping a Main Street Iowa designation can change that.

Main Street Iowa is a statewide program that looks at four sources of value: economic, design, organization and promotion, through a historic-preservation lens, said Thom Guzman, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center, a department of the Iowa Economic Development Authority that runs the Main Street program. Qualified communities typically receive about $120,000 in value in training and services from specialists, such as market research.

During the 26 years of the program, it has spurred nearly $1.15 billion in private sector investment and helped start 3,800 new businesses, Mr. Guzman said. There are 48 active communities in the state, and last year, Marion hoped to add their name to the list.

Marion didn’t make the cut.

The state gave the city one year to rally more support before reconsidering its application. The deadline was Nov. 9 and Marion will find out the results early next year.

Jill Ackerman, president of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, said the application process was a bit daunting. It requires detailed information about the proposed district, existing businesses, the property values and histories of buildings, as well as short- and long-term goals. For Marion’s proposed 26-square-block district, the printed application is nearly 4 inches thick.

“You kind of have to become a detective for a few months,” Ms. Ackerman said.

Then, the group needs to document community support of the initiative. This time around, the chamber has raised more than $10,000 and collected more than 350 letters of support; Mr. Guzman said these numbers are typical for a community the size of Marion.

“Communities have to demonstrate a commitment to the Main Street approach,” he said. “They have to demonstrate to the state that they are willing to embrace this strategy.”

If selected, Marion will also need to find a full-time staffer for the Main Street initiative.

Although the process is long, Ms. Ackerman believes it will be worthwhile and local business owners are excited about it. The group has witnessed the benefits in other Main Street communities, including Central City, Mount Vernon and West Branch.

“I think the great thing about the Main Street organization is they have this proven structure that has worked all over the country,” she said.

The Main Street Iowa program is based on the 4-point approach developed by the National Main Street Program that has been used in communities around the country. All four need to be powered by an “army” of volunteers and all four work together.

For example, the promotion committee, which might plan festivals, and the design committee, which might create streetscape plans, need to ensure the results are consistent with the district’s economic realities. In other words, as Mr. Guzman explained, districts can’t try to throw a wine and cheese festival for a beer and pretzel crowd.

“Trying to determine what they want to be when they grow up is critical in this new
phase of downtowns.”

–Thom Guzman

It begins with a visioning process.

“If they were able to wave the magic wand, what would downtown look like?” he said. Main Street Iowa provides business and design specialists to help the districts determine their market niche.

“They can’t be the same thing they were 30 years ago,” Mr. Guzman said. “Trying to determine what they want to be when they grow up is critical in this new phase of downtowns.”

That may be especially true in Marion, where an abandoned railway corridor from the town’s past is being converted into a main roadway. Ms. Ackerman and local business owners believe the city’s investment in the Central Corridor Project makes the timing right for improvements to Uptown, just one block over.

Marion business owner Ms. Sharp- Richardson hopes that if some traffic is diverted to the Central Corridor, Uptown can become more attractive and pedestrian friendly and maybe Marion Square Park won’t feel like an island any more.

She opened her first storefront, The Chocolate Shop (formerly Temptation’s Fine Candies) in Marion in 2004. The business operated in Atkins for 30 years before Ms. Sharp-Richardson and her husband bought it. Opening the Marion location was the best thing they could have done, she said.

Last fall, they moved The Chocolate Shop and production of the candies up a few blocks to a building they purchased and painstakingly restored. She now owns a second business, Happenstance on 7th, an art gallery, in the first location.

“We chose Uptown Marion because it’s a nice mix of businesses,” she said. “It’s a vibrant district, but it could use a lot of help.”

If Marion receives the designation, she hopes more building owners and businesses will take advantage of the preservation resources that weren’t available to her when she started.

“I think the history is the treasure,” she said. “You can build a new downtown but there’s a certain personality of the old uptown that needs to be cherished, and polished.”

Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District benefits

 

Main Street Challenge grants, available to the 48 active Main Street Iowa communities, helped restore some historic buildings in the Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods. That district earned Main Street status in 2009, not long after it was entirely inundated with floodwaters. The Suchy building in New Bo, home of Bata’s Restaurant, is one example.

Farther down Third Street SE, a pair of century- old houses will find a new life, thanks to a $50,000 Main Street Challenge Grant received earlier this year.

“It allows me to do the extras to keep them totally historical,” said Jon Jelinek, owner of Jelinek Companies, who owns Parlor City Pub and Eatery at Third Street SE and 12th Avenue SE and the two houses. A restoration of the buildings is planned. The grant is a matching program, meaning Mr. Jelinek must contribute an equal amount. The grant money makes historical fidelity more feasible. Restoring a building to historic standards typically costs 25-30 percent more.

One of the houses will be converted to include first-floor commercial space and second-floor residential space; the other will become a bed and breakfast, with breakfast served at Parlor City. He hopes to continue restoring properties in the New Bo neighborhood after that.

The Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District is one of three in the state with an “Urban Commercial Neighborhood” designation, along with the Hilltop Campus Village in Davenport and the Sixth Avenue Corridor in Des Moines.

Jennifer Pruden, the Czech Village/ New Bo district’s executive director, said that designation is reserved for smaller or secondary neighborhoods within communities larger than 50,000 people, but otherwise, the benefits are the same. The district has benefited from quarterly training sessions where they can interact with all 48 active main street communities, as well as consultation from design and development experts, she said.

For example, Main Street Iowa is helping to guide the district’s ongoing master planning process. The district is conducting an online survey and hosting public workshops to help guide future redevelopment efforts.

“The Main Street program helps to give a framework to our organization,” she said.