Green Streets in Iowa

Download Main Street Now PDF 2010/03_04

Downtown businesses in two Iowa communities have been seeing a new kind of green lately.

In 2008, the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) selected two Main Street communities to serve as pilots for its Green Streets Initiative. As pilots, the Main Streets of Woodbine and West Union will experiment with measures to achieve sustainable communities and serve as models for their colleagues in Iowa and others throughout the nation.


Rural Woodbine, located in the southwest region of Iowa, has a population of 1,500. Woodbine's downtown is made up of 50 buildings situated along two square blocks. The community is similar in size to many other Iowa towns, making it an ideal pilot community for the Green Streets Initiative. The City of Woodbine, Simonson & Associates Architects, and the IDED banded together to "develop a sustainable master plan, which incorporated energy-efficiency improvements, downtown revitalization, beautification, and streetscapes," says Main Street Woodbine Co-Director Darin Smith. 

With the help of the city, IDED, and Cenergy, an independent and nationally certified building energy-use rating firm, Woodbine Main Street provided energy audits to all 50 of its downtown businesses.  The audit assesses the amount of energy a building uses and suggests measures for improving energy efficiency.

Smith admits that the energy audit seemed complex to those unfamiliar with the technicalities of energy efficiency, but with the assistance of local contractors, the Main Street program was able to use the audit data to suggest reasonable improvements to business owners. Grants from several sources, including the Iowa Power Fund Community Grant Program, the City of Woodbine, Woodbine Municipal Natural Gas, Woodbine Municipal Light & Power, the Missouri River Bright Energy Solutions, and USDA's Rural Energy for America Program, have provided funding for business owners who want to make some of those improvements.

Main Street Woodbine is currently working to promote the program and spread the initiative to its residential and industrial districts using funds saved from the energy cost reduction. To date, only a few businesses have made improvements to their properties. With new financial incentives, however, Smith foresees that 30 more businesses will make improvements in 2010.

Smith admits that at first there was some skepticism about becoming a green pilot community because of doubts on "return on investment." The skepticism was eventually outweighed by the value of the opportunity to revitalize the community.

Smith says they were able to get the business community on board simply by doing it. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If there is a way to help businesses improve by saving them money (by spending less on energy costs), it only makes sense to try whatever we can. Because [business owners] want to see a return on this investment, we will closely monitor savings along the way."

So far, results look promising. One business has already seen savings after installing a gas furnace, improving ductwork, and sealing the foundation. Compared to February last year, the business owner has saved $300 on utility bills this February. Cost of such improvements is defrayed by grant funds while the remaining balance will be financed by the city at zero percent.

Overall, the Green Streets Initiative is helping Woodbine create a sustainable community that Smith deems "especially important for a small town in rural Iowa that can do or die in a short period of time without tremendous leadership and a willingness not only to revitalize but to maintain vitality."

Sustainability allows communities to focus on what can be done to promote the longevity of a community. Woodbine also hopes to attract new residents and businesses through its improvements. In the next few months Woodbine plans to expand its energy plan, implement a whole town audit program, and assist community residents with weatherization improvements.

"Woodbine hopes … to use the savings from energy-efficiency improvements downtown … with other funding (like grants) to perform audits in our residential district," says Smith. "At a minimum, Woodbine will be able to use thermal imaging to show homeowners where their homes can stand improvement, which is where a 'weatherization blitz' may come in and include more minor low-cost/no-cost fixes like sealing doors and windows with caulk and weather stripping. A weatherization blitz will be a quick and more affordable way to address the needs of many homeowners rather than investing in deep, costly retrofits on just a few homes."

West Union

Like Woodbine, West Union is a rural agricultural community with a population of only 2,500. Downtown West Union has six blocks of service and retail businesses. Many of the buildings are historic structures that date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Main Street program began in 2006 and has enjoyed much success ever since. The program is described by the state as "the state baby that never learned to crawl," says Robin Bostrom, program director of Main Street West Union and West Union Chamber of Commerce. "We just stood up and started to run."

West Union was chosen to participate in the pilot program because it is similar to other Iowan towns, has successfully launched other community programs like a food and fitness initiative, and, most of all, because it was on the cusp of starting a master planning process. Thus, its greening focus is on sustainability planning. West Union began with a community visioning meeting where local, state, and federal representatives discussed how sustainability measures could meet the town's needs.1

Fresh in the minds of residents was the severe flooding in 2008 that devastated towns throughout Iowa, and prompted the city to consider preventative measures. The economic importance of the freshwater creeks and trout streams made storm water management a priority because the area's fishing destinations are important tourism attractions. Members of the community wanted to find an aesthetically pleasing, manageable solution that used durable, eco-friendly materials.

Energy audits, made possible by the local utility company, were conducted throughout downtown, and more than 70 businesses took advantage of the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint by making such improvements as replacing old doors, caulking windows to reduce drafts, and replacing coolers in restaurants with more energy-efficient ones.

Another component of West Union's green initiative plan is the use of a shared geothermal heating and cooling system that delivers heat extracted from the earth to heat or cool a building. All buildings will receive a "stub line" (which is similar to the way a city provides buildings with water or sewer lines) to the system free of charge; property owners can decide if or when they want to participate. Not every business will make the switch immediately, says Bostrom. Some may need to deal with other financial obligations, while others may have recently upgraded their furnaces or need to upgrade their building's current systems before they can connect to the new system. This system can significantly reduce heating and cooling costs while making the community more sustainable. By providing a stub line to all buildings now, the city will give future building owners or tenants the opportunity to make the switch.

Main Street West Union and its partners have made a substantial effort to educate and assist the public. The Center on Sustainable Communities, a West Des Moines-based nonprofit, is hosting workshops funded through IDED to educate professionals and homeowners on sustainable home building, maintenance, and renovation practices. Bostrom says that the workshops have been very well received so far and the professional series even had to be moved to a bigger locale because of high demand. 

The sustainability initiative has even spread to West Union's schools. Bostrom says there is value in educating kids about sustainability so that they can teach their parents. One school created a Wetland Restoration Project in a creek that runs through their school's property. A rain garden and bio retention cell demonstration site located in the downtown also serves as a hands-on lab for students. The students learned that the system absorbed the run-off instead of sending contaminated water into the trout streams – information, says Bostrom, that the kids thought was "very cool."

Bostrom names funding as the biggest challenge West Union has faced throughout the process. Rural communities have limited resources, but so far the town has secured more than $5 million in grants for the $8.6 million project. While some stakeholders showed little interest in the project because they didn't see why West Union should make sustainability a priority, Bostrom constantly reminded them why the changes would be good − that this project would improve the community for future generations. Bostrom also says that it was difficult to measure costs versus savings, but notes that while up-front costs may be large, there really are savings in the long run.

In the next few months, West Union will start the first of two construction phases. Meanwhile, the Main Street Program continues to educate the public on the initiative and look for ways to be more energy efficient.

Main Street West Union is very optimistic about the Green Streets Initiative. The community lost two major employers in 2009 but hopes to attract residents and business owners through participation in the pilot program. Main Street West Union also wishes to create a pleasing environment for residents because the downtown serves as a gathering area for the community. Because West Union is a conservative rural town that lacks wealth, says Bostrom, "if our community can do it, anyone can do it."

State Side

The Green Streets Initiative was the brainchild of the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED), which formulated the program during a 2007 planning session that focused on ways to integrate green practices into community development. The initiative ties sustainability practices to economic development in Iowa by making public health, energy efficiency, water conservation, operational savings, and sustainable building practices a priority for housing projects, tourism efforts, CDBG projects, and Main Street revitalization. The IDED has also adopted its own "green" practices such as switching from printed to electronic communications, planning conferences to focus on reduction of waste and other eco-friendly practices, raising expectations for Iowa communities and businesses to use green practices and materials in revitalization efforts, and providing technical assistance to communities to promote environmental responsibility. 

Jeff Geerts, IDED special projects manager, says that sustainability is especially important to the economic, social, and environmental future of Iowa as state and local budgets can't maintain the current way of life. Rising energy costs, threats to the water supply in parts of the state, the aging population, the degradation of streams and lakes, land-use decisions, the enormous number of miles driven by Iowans, and the interest expressed by Iowa communities and businesses that want to become more sustainable prompted the IDED to make sustainability a priority.

The IDED chose two Main Street communities, Woodbine and West Union, to serve as pilot communities for the Green Streets Initiative. The department is using a three-year matching grant from the USDA Rural Development program to promote green practices and bring technical assistance to its Main Street communities. According to Geerts, the pilots will serve as "on-the-ground models for other communities … to assist them in their sustainability efforts." Geerts adds that IDED hopes that the pilots will strengthen the sustainability of Iowa communities, improve the competitiveness of Iowa businesses, strengthen the cultural fabric of the communities, enhance the environment and quality of life in Iowa communities, and demonstrate that a thriving economy and protection of the environment are mutually supportive.

Although many communities want to "go green," Geerts admits that it isn't an easy task. The process involves extensive planning assistance, especially in small communities; securing grant money for green projects requires a lot of effort; and communities need a great deal of education about green practices and technology. It is also challenging, says Geerts, to switch from looking at up-front costs to surveying long-term savings. Communities must have strong leadership and widespread support for this type of initiative.

Steps to promote green practices can be taken at the state and local levels. Geerts suggests that cities and local organizations develop their own set of green standards, much like the IDED did. He also recommends that organizations focus on long-term savings over the first-cost approach, update plans and policies that make sustainability a greater priority, and give incentives to communities that practice sustainability.

The Main Street movement promotes sustainability through building preservation and reinvestment in existing communities. Geerts suggests a few simple improvements Main Street communities can make to further their sustainability efforts:

• Create a comprehensive vision for your Main Street district that incorporates public input and green practices;

• Improve energy efficiency;

• Improve pedestrian and bicyclist options through safety, accessibility, and visibility;

• Maintain aesthetically pleasing buildings and public spaces;

• Buy local; and

• Establish rain gardens and other measures to better manage storm water.

The pilot program has helped Woodbine and West Union tap new resources for projects for which they might not otherwise have been eligible. For example, West Union's streetscape plan and strategy will open it up to state and federal stimulus programs. West Union has also received more than $300,000 from IDED to complete its streetscape schematic design and design documents, conduct a feasibility analysis for its heating/cooling and snow/ice melt plans, and offer energy-efficiency grants. Both pilot communities are off to a great start and, as their progress continues, it will be interesting to see how they realize their innovative ideas and serve as models for others to follow.