Gowrie hears results of downtown assessment

‘Everybody we talked to loved Gowrie’

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Design Consultant Kevin Pomeroy, center, takes questions from Gowrie Mayor Gayle Redman and City Council member Terry Willardson Thursday. A team from Iowa Economic Development presented to city leaders after a three-day assessment of Gowrie’s downtown.

GOWRIE — Gowrie recognizes the importance of downtown to a community’s health.

With the hope of doing some revitalization work in the future, the second-largest town in Webster County invited experts from the Iowa Economic Development Authority to do a three-day assessment of the downtown.

The visitors were impressed with the number of people who loved their town and want to work on bettering it, said Terry Poe Buschkamp, promotion specialist for the Iowa Downtown Resource Center.

“Everybody we talked to loved Gowrie,” Buschkamp said. “We talked to the GDC, and we know that group is very committed to improving the downtown.

“You’re all passionate and committed to this community.”

The group also found problems on their walk through the downtown.

There is a large number of vacant buildings, Buschkamp said, along with peeling paint on buildings, sidewalks in disrepair, and a lack of signs. In places needed maintenance has been deferred.

Working on a facade project for downtown businesses, and updating the streetscape are priorities for Gowrie, said Mayor Gayle Redman and Councilmember Terry Willardson.

“We are thinking of applying for larger grants in the future, and this was an inexpensive way to get some beginning information to help us apply for grants later,” Redman said.

“We need to figure out how to fill in the vacant spots we have downtown, and throughout the community. We’re focused on downtown. If the downtown looks nice, people will want to come here and shop,” Willardson said. “The biggest goal is to keep the existing businesses in business, and help them profit more, and bring in new businesses that we need.”

“We recommend you work hard to retain what you already have,” Robin Bostrom, business specialist, said. “I know it’s more fun and more sexy to go out and recruit the new things, but you guys have a lot of good stuff here the community doesn’t want to lose.”

There may be opportunities for existing businesses to grow to fill new needs, Bostrom said. For instance, after Gowrie lost its hardware store, the grocery store in town created a large new lumber section.

“These are the categories people are leaving the community for,” Bostrom said, presenting a list. “So is there an opportunity for existing businesses to do similar to what the grocery store has done?”

The categories include furniture stores, building materials, lawn and garden, gifts and office supplies.

On the other hand, customers were coming from out of town to purchase electronics and appliances, food and beverages, gas and floral products, she said.

And there was other demographic good news — Gowrie is actually growing, with a population of right around 1,000 at the 2010 census and 1,121 estimated in 2017.

“In a lot of rural communities we see exactly the opposite,” Bostrom said.

The study included surveys filled out in past weeks, tours of the town and the downtown this week, and meeting directly with residents and business owners.

In surveys and meetings, people agreed the town has a friendly atmosphere, and a large number of helpful services — but also feel empty storefronts give the appearance of decline.

At meetings citizens voted on what the highest priorities should be, and what they’d be willing to volunteer for.

The Gowrie Development Commission had lots of ideas, Bostrom said, but sometimes ideas can be a widespread like a shotgun, or like chasing squirrels.

“So you might need to narrow your focus to just the ones that got votes here, and maybe slim it down even more to the ones with people who are willing to spearhead and lead that initiative,” she said.

To help clean up areas where litter can gather, the team recommended having a regular clean-up day, perhaps once a month or once a quarter.

“Turn it into an event. It could be fun,” Bostrom said. “Have food, have some music.”

To keep what the town has, Gowrie also needs to plan for succession — for when business owners retire.

“Think of your downtown as a shopping mall — who are the anchors?” she said.

Gowrie could also create another townwide event, Buschkamp said. It wouldn’t have to compete with the town’s Fourth of July celebration, which is already successful.

And share these results, Bostrom said. Make the case to the community why it should care about revitalizing downtown, and have a simple document or picture showing the goal.

There are plenty of grants which can help towns fixing up old buildings and storefronts — including the new Catalytic Building Remediation.

“It’s a big grant,” Buschkamp said. “Very competitive, though. It has to make a big difference in your downtown.”

“There will be grant application workshops coming up this fall, and you are required to attend one of those workshops to even submit an application.”

The IEDA will send a full written report with more detail to the town leaders within three weeks, Buschkamp said.