Main Street names WB
by Rob Poggenklass · News · June 07, 2006

West Branch 1 of 3 Iowa cities to join downtown revitalization program

West Branch has joined an elite statewide and national network of communities focused on revitalizing their downtown business centers while maintaining the historical value of important buildings.

Last Thursday morning, June 1, officials from the Iowa Department of Economic Development announced that West Branch was one of three cities designated to become a Main Street Iowa community this year. The announcement was made at Town Hall by Mary Lawyer, director of the IDED, and Jane Seaton, director of Main Street Iowa. About 45 local people attended.

“We are really excited to be here,” said Seaton. “We are looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with you.”

The announcement came less than a month after Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch made a formal presentation to the Main Street Advisory Council, a group of 14 individuals with diverse personal and professional backgrounds, at IDED headquarters in Des Moines. West Branch was the last of the three new Main Street communities to be announced — West Union and Ottumwa were designated on May 31.

The three cities join 34 other communities already in the Main Street Iowa program, whose mission is economic development with a focus on historic preservation. The organization promises three years of staff training to each of its communities, valued at $100,000, as well as continuing training valued at $10,000 annually. As part of the Main Street Iowa network, West Branch will also have access people in 36 other communities, who are grappling with similar issues in their downtowns.

Lawyer said she had the opportunity to view West Branch’s historic downtown before the announcement Thursday, and was impressed by it.

“You have beautiful buildings,” said Lawyer. “You can tell it’s a community with a lot of pride.”

Lawyer also noticed several downtown vacancies on her tour of West Branch — a sign, she said, that work still needs to be done. While praising West Branch for its initiative to revitalize the downtown, Seaton echoed Lawyer’s remarks.

“Anyone who thinks that Main Street is a destination is very foolish,” said Seaton. “Now your real work starts.”

Thom Guzman, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center, said a solid volunteer effort of about 300 core individuals will be needed to make Main Street work in West Branch. Guzman, who was the West Branch Chamber of Commerce’s guest speaker at the group’s annual banquet in February, said last Thursday that Main Street Iowa and its communities have great relationships, with expectations for success on both sides.

“We want this to be a project that you build, that you create,” said Seaton, “because you, better than anyone, know how to do it.”

The Main Street announcement was welcomed by City Administrator Ty Doermann and Brad Larson, president of the Friends group. Mayor Sandy Hatfield was unable to attend because of an annual inspection last week at Crestview Nursing Home, where she is activities director.

Stories of the West Branch announcement were inside last Friday’s Gazette and the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and on local radio station KXIC, AM-800.

Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch formed about a year ago; the group decided last winter to pursue entry into the Main Street program. The move was backed by the West Branch City Council, which pledged $45,000 over three years — half the money required by the state organization. The Friends group raised another $61,000 in pledges this spring, for a total of $116,000. Donations from West Branch residents, civic groups and alumni comprise the vast majority of the pledges, which the Friends group has already begun collecting.

Larson and Doermann recognized each of the four city council members in attendance, as well as members of the Friends group, most of whom were at Town Hall for the announcement last Thursday morning.

The Friends group was slated to hold interviews this Wednesday for the Main Street Coordinator, who will guide the program’s volunteer operations in West Branch. Friends group members have been looking at several downtown locations to house West Branch’s Main Street office, another program requirement.

Main Street Iowa officials will return to West Branch June 21-22, to get the program started here. A downtown visioning session is planned for the evening of June 21. On June 22, members of the Friends — and perhaps, the new Main Street Coordinator — will begin one of many Main Street training sessions, as required by the program. Included will be recommendations from the Main Street Advisory Council, which heard the Friends’ May 3 presentation and analyzed West Branch’s Main Street application, which contained over 100 pages.

Main Street University, another training session, will be held over several days later this summer. That program requires that local Main Street board members go to another Main Street Iowa community with state officials to learn how projects and volunteer efforts have worked — and, more importantly, how to make them work at home, say, in West Branch.

The Iowa Downtown Summit will be held Aug. 22-23 in Sioux City, another event that West Branch’s Main Street group will be expected to attend. Featured topics include: Heritage Tourism, Building Codes, Downtown Success Stories, Non-profit Operations, Conducting Business On-line and Working with the Media.

Guzman said that over the next three years, Main Street Iowa officials will spend 40 to 45 staff days with West Branchers in West Branch. That does not include four mandatory training sessions, such as Main Street University, which are held in other communities.

“It’s going to take a lot more work than we’ve put in so far,” said Larson.

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