What I Didn't Know About Iowa

Until 1985, all I knew about Iowa was that it was kind of flat, it grew lots of corn, and it’s where Captain James T. Kirk grew up.

I soon learned I didn’t really know anything at all about Iowa.

In the summer of 1985, the State of Iowa decided to launch a statewide Main Street program, and the National Trust’s National Main Street Center assigned me to help the Iowa Development Commission launch it. By July, I was on a plane to Des Moines.

Over the next four years, I traveled from one end of the state to the other, helping launch Iowa’s Main Street program, working with the new program’s staff to select its first participating communities, and helping train their participants – from the Missouri River east to the Mississippi, from the South Dakota border south to Missouri.

I learned a lot.

I learned that Iowa has 99 counties and nearly 1,000 towns and cities, but that only 10 of them have more than 50,000 people. That Dvorak wrote his New World Symphony in Spillville ¾ not far from where the movie Field of Dreams was filmed almost a century later. That one of the state’s most famous universities, University of Okoboji, is imaginary  ¾ a brilliant inside joke. That Iowa’s high school students earn some of the nation’s highest SAT scores every year. That there are literally thousands of products made from corn. That kids who grow up in Iowa Falls believe that every town has an annual Dental Parade, just like they do, with the kids all marching down Main Street with their toothbrushes (and, of course, there’s a Tooth Fairy). That, as the book and movie suggest, Madison County really does have a lot of historic bridges. And, as I’ve learned countless times since 1985, that small towns facing treacherous economic odds often come up with revitalization solutions so successful and creative that they would do the toughest urban commercial corridors proud.

The Riverwalk in downtown Des Moines is one of the nation's most innovative sustainable urban landscapes in the nation. 

The Des Moines I saw on my first trip in August 1985 looked vastly different from the Des Moines you’ll visit when you attend the National Main Streets Conference this May. Back then, downtown Des Moines looked dead, with its businesses and street life weirdly transported up to a network of skywalks spanning most of the district’s streets. It took lots of maneuvering to get from Fleur Drive, the street that connects the city to its airport, into the downtown. And green space? Other than the Capitol lawn, there wasn’t much.

Today, you would hardly recognize the place. People (and businesses) are back on the sidewalks. The district’s historic hotels have been rehabbed, and new ones have joined them. Fleur Drive is now a green and gracious avenue into downtown Des Moines. The downtown’s Riverwalk is one of the most innovative models of sustainable urban landscapes in the nation. East Village, one of the downtown’s sub-districts, is one of the state’s hottest emerging residential neighborhoods. The price tags of new downtown condominiums rival those one might find in Seattle, Chicago, or Washington, reflecting their soaring market popularity.

East Village in Des Moines is one of the state's hottest emerging residential neighborhoods, with soaring sales prices for its downtown condominiums.

As amazing as Des Moines’s own transformation has been, the most amazing transformations have taken place in the state’s Main Street communities.

Take Oskaloosa, for example. When Oskaloosa launched its Main Street program in 1986 (one of the state’s first five local programs), it had a ground-floor vacancy rate of around 20 percent. The local community foundation had invested in a project that involved demolishing several blocks of historic downtown buildings and replaced them with an enclosed regional shopping mall. And only a handful of buildings had been rehabbed.

But today almost all the storefronts are full, with lots of new apartments upstairs overlooking the town’s beautiful town square park and historic bandstand. The century-old Carnegie Library has been rehabbed and expanded. A local corporation, Musco Lighting, has upgraded the district’s lighting and moved most of its corporate offices downtown. And a prominent rehabilitation project – Trolley Square – was one of the few rehab projects in the nation to snag a HOPE VI Main Street grant. The project also used federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits, with Musco Lighting serving as the project’s tax credit investor.

Chuck and Emily Russell, volunteer leaders from the inception of the Oskaloosa Main Street program in 1986, received the Spirit of Main Street Award from the state in 2001.

Chuck Russell, who owned a title insurance company in downtown Oskaloosa for many years with his wife, Emily, once told me, “A business that’s only open from 9 to 5 is catering to the unemployed.” I’ve repeated Chuck’s words many times over the years, as have other former and current members of the National Trust Main Street Center’s staff. Chuck’s words have become part of the Main Street program’s DNA, like many other great ideas and innovations from Iowa’s Main Street program.


Don't miss Kennedy's session, "Pop-Ups: Would They Fit on Your Main Street?" at the 2011 National Main Streets Conference, on Tuesday, May 24, at 3:45 p.m. Find out how these temporary businesses can create new entrepreneurship opportunities as well as generate a lively buzz on your Main Street. Don't forget to register for the conference by May 4th.