Keokuk, Iowa

Iowa | 2000 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 4/3/2000

There is only one Keokuk (population 12,451) in the world!  Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Des Moines Rivers on the southeast corner of the state, Keokuk was named after Sac Indian Chief Keokuk, who is buried in Rand Park on a bluff overlooking one of the most picturesque spots on the Mississippi.

The town’s first commercial district, known as Rat Row, sprang up on the banks of the river in the 1830s. It was made up of fur traders and suppliers of staple goods to serve passengers and crew of river vessels that found it necessary to portage around the Mississippi’s raging rapids. A linear, 16-block downtown gradually developed as Iowa’s first white settlement.

Over time, roadways improved and shoppers fell in love with enclosed malls around the bigger cities in the region. Desperate to shore up flagging sales and a slumping economy, four square blocks of downtown were razed to build an enclosed mall in the late 1960s. The development prompted downtown anchor stores to relocate to the mall – vacating several Victorian buildings instead of providing a boost to local businesses on Main Street.  Discount stores opened on the edges of Keokuk in the 1970s and 80s, dealing another blow to Main Street.

In April 1986, Keokuk was one of the first five towns selected to participate in the new Main Street Iowa program. The first order of business was abandoning the “sale” approach to retail promotions and softening the appearance of the 84-foot-wide highway that is Keokuk’s Main Street.

With a daily traffic count of 11,000 to 16,000, Main Street’s exhaust fumes and heat from the concrete was deterring people from shopping downtown.  To address the problems, trees were planted and banners were hung to absorb noise, soften the appearance of the wide road, and shade the sidewalk. Trash receptacles were installed and downtown clean-up days were instituted. Celebrations and special events returned to downtown and new uses were found for vacant buildings. Arson that once plagued Main Street stopped. And, new construction began to fill in the streetscape.

Three banks created a pool of money for grants to jump-start what has become a steady series of façade improvements since 1986. To date, 248 building rehabilitations and new construction projects have been completed to the tune of $16.8 million from private funds in addition to the $7.7 million invested in property acquisition. Not only was Keokuk the first Main Street Iowa town to reach the $20 million mark in private investment, but also a new preservation ethic had permeated the residents of city. Keokuk has defied the odds by strengthening its traditional downtown business mix that includes a balanced blend of retail, service, commercial, and public entities. Since 1986, the central business district has enjoyed a net gain of 146 business starts, relocations, and expansions. And, for every $1 spent on the revitalization program, it has generated $42 of private investment!

Keokuk has indeed earned its reputation as a place where today and history meet.