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Main Street lessons

Experts talk about how to improve downtown

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Tim Reinders, a Main Street Iowa specialist, talks about the look and feel of downtowns during a Main Street visioning session inside a conference room at the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance Thursday.

Terry Poe Buschkamp was the Main Street executive director for Waterloo in the early 2000s when that city’s downtown was struggling.

When she left that position in 2008, dozens of new businesses had opened and Waterloo’s main street had taken on a better vibe, she said.

“We brought people to our downtown in Waterloo,” Buschkamp said. “They thought it was a fun, clean, safe place to be.”

She added, “They are now thriving.”

Buschkamp and Tim Reinders, both specialists from Main Street Iowa, led two separate Main Street visioning sessions Thursday inside the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance offices. About 25 people attended.

Fort Dodge was readmitted to the Main Street Iowa program in August 2017 with the hope that it too can prosper.

The Main Street program is led by the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Its goal is to improve the downtown area of the cities that are part of the program.

The Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, along with the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and the city of Fort Dodge, applied for the designation.

Kris Patrick holds the Main Street executive director position for Fort Dodge. She most recently served as both the coordinator of Main Street Chariton and executive director of the Chariton Area Chamber of Commerce. Her starting salary is $45,000. She will also receive a stipend of up to $5,000 a year to help pay for health insurance.

Patrick is not an employee of the city government or the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. She is an an employee of Main Street Fort Dodge, which is overseen by SSMID.

According to Buschkamp, there are four parts to Main Street Iowa: design, organization, promotion and economic vitality.

“Something needs to happen in all four of those areas,” she said. “Eventually, if you’re not doing things in all four areas, you will fail.”

Buschkamp’s session focused on promotion.

“Two thirds of promotion is motion,” she said. “It takes a large group of people.”

Business promotions, special events and festivals, image campaigns, and marketing strategy for district, were four areas Buschkamp highlighted.

A cash mob is an example she used as a business promotion.

“Twenty dollars can make a difference,” she said.

Buschkamp also mentioned the importance of shopping local.

“It’s not enough to tell people to buy local, it’s about telling people why it’s important to support your local merchants,” she said.

According to Buschkamp, special events are important to attract new groups of people to the downtown.

She also shared the results of a recent Fort Dodge survey conducted by Main Street Iowa.

The survey found that most people see businesses and historic buildings/architecture as the downtown’s greatest assets.

The Market on Central was the favorite local event, followed by Shellabration, according to the survey.

In terms of involvement, a majority of people said downtown events would excite them to get involved.

Reinders led his session on design.

“In terms of design, if you have a Studebaker, let it be a Studebaker,” he said. “If you have a Cadillac, let it be a Cadillac. Be respective of the architecture.”

Reinders was involved when Fort Dodge was part of the Main Street program 17 years ago.

“The last time Fort Dodge was in Main Street, the Sears building was empty,” he said. “That’s all been redone. That’s good to see.”

That building is now Heartland Senior Living. The 100-year-old structure was renovated within the last couple of years. It houses 48 apartments.

Reinders talked about the exterior of buildings.

“Sometimes something as simple as paint can make a big difference,” he said. “But you have to be careful. Paint can be really good or really bad depending on application.”

Reinders emphasized the importance of upper floor windows.

“You want the window to fill that original opening,” he said. “You can end up with a headache just trying to fill that space.”

He added, “Getting the windows right on a downtown can make a big difference.”

In terms of storefronts, Reinders said he likes to see glass.

“Storefronts — keep them transparent,” he said. “Lots of glass.”

He was complimentary of some of Fort Dodge’s historic buildings.

“Entrances are the money part of the store,” he said. “You guys have some really cool terrazzo designs in some of the older buildings.”

Signs were another hot topic.

“We do a lot of work with signs,” Reinders said. “Some signs can become public art. It can be a strong reflection of a business.”

Reinders said the Main Street program would help businesses with their signage.

“The whole idea is we want to raise the bar,” Reinders said. “A $1,000 sign versus a $200 sign can make a big difference.”

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