Inspiring a Community and State to Build a Better Block

April 24, 2018 | Main Street Spotlight | Inspiring a Community (and State) to Build a Better Block | By Michael Wagler, Main Street Iowa |

Volunteers from Main Street programs across Iowa converge to implement change in downtown Ottumwa. Photo Credit: Main Street Iowa 

A community often has a vision of what it wants downtown to be. We have sketches, renderings, workplans, and long-term comprehensive plans, all of which are very important to the process. In addition to all the talking, visioning, and planningthe community needs to see action. In October 2017, Main Street Ottumwa collaborated with local partners, Main Street Iowathe National Endowment for the Arts, and the Better Block Foundation to stop planning, talking, and wishing, and start doing. Volunteers traded in their office desks for drillspencilspaint brushes, and began building a better block. 

The Process

Like many downtowns, Ottumwa’s downtown is a work in progress. While there has been a great deal of progress made, the perception of downtown, with its vacant storefronts and deteriorating properties, create a barrier for the community to see the potential and vision for its bright future. Better Block, a Dallas-based urban design nonprofit, is all about inspiring people by showing communities what is possible and giving the people in the community the tools and resources to make their own change.  Ottumwa_Volunteers.jpg

“Changing your place doesn’t have to be a daunting task that’s left to experts” commented Jason Roberts, founder of the Better Block Foundation. “There are small, simple changes that amateurs can make at the block level that have dramatic ripple effects which cascade through the city.”   

Better Block began engaging with the Ottumwa community three months prior to the project’s implementation. Armed with surveys results, onsite district assessments, and targeted discussions with local businesses, community leaders, and citizens, Better Block was able to create a project concept map highlighting elements that were working well and designed temporary interventions for elements that were not.  

“Working with Better Block, gave us [Main Street Ottumwa] a better opportunity to learn about what our community wanted to see on Main Street,” said Fred Zesiger, Main Street Ottumwa Executive Director. “They [Better Block] encouraged our citizens to dream big and think outside the box while identifying solutions to crucial problems that would make the space safer and achieve its full potential.”  

A “normal” Better Block would be implemented through the recruitment of local volunteers to build, lift, paint, carry and build the better block. The implementation of the Ottumwa Better Block took on different approach and involved Main Street board members and Executive Directors from across Iowa helping Ottumwa realize their vision in just an eight-hour period. The involvement of the Main Street Iowa network also provided an opportunity to “train the trainers,” disseminate the knowledge, and show how the Better Block process can work in their downtown.   


The Interventions

The Better Block public engagement process identified several specific interventions to meet the goals of the project to empower residents, seed ideas for permanent change, guide small business to downtown, and attract new visitors to the downtown.  


Interventions included:   

  • Pop-up Shops: Local entrepreneurs were identified to open four pop-up shops in the Better Block project area. Space was negotiated, storefronts were cleaned and decorated, and shops were open for business during the event.     
  • Activities for Kids: A major request through the public engagement process was the desire for safer downtown environment for childrenTo accomplish this, a large vacant corner lot that had been used for construction equipment storage just days before, was transformed into a community park. The area was complete with a kids play area, picnic tables, food trucks, and a stage for entertainment.    
  • Street Amenities: Better Block's WikiBlock provided an easy and direct solution to improve the pedestrian's experience. Street furnishings, bike racks, and kiosks were added to the project area to encourage visitors to slow down and take in the environment. This was accomplished by using an open-source library of street furniture designs that are cut with CNC router and assembled by volunteers with no glue, screws, or nails.   
  • Bike Lane: With a major trail running along the Des Moines River just two blocks away, the Better Block project incorporated a protected bike lane that provided a direct trail connection to and through downtown.   
  • Pedestrian Safety: Clearly marked elements like colorful crosswalk, curb extensions, and landscaping were added to create a safe and functional pedestrian environment.   
  • Public ArtA partnership with the Ottumwa Area Arts Council assisted in the addition of art throughout the district. Vacant storefront windows were transformed into framed street galleries with the installation of wheat paste murals. 
  • Ottumwa Theater: The long-vacant Ottumwa Theater once again became a gathering point for Ottumwa residents. The Better Block weekend concluded with a concert inside the theater with nearly 500 people in attendance that “rocked the block.”


Before and after view of the Better Block Ottumwa project area. Photo Credit: Main Street Ottumwa

The Impacts  

Better Block’s approach was comprehensive and helped create a place that residents of Ottumwa are proud of, enjoy interacting with, and a place they want to bring their families. Through project demonstration, people realized that their vision of a vibrant, colorful, friendly Main Street where families could socialize, exercise, eat, shop, drink, live, and celebrateare within reach 

As a result of the Better Block weekend, hundreds of people came back downtown to explore, interact and experience their vision in action.  

The impacts of this effort have proven to be lasting:  

  • New Business Downtown: Two of the four pop-up shops now have permanent leases in downtown storefronts and a new restaurant has relocated to downtown, citing the Better Block as a factor in their decision to locate downtown 
  • Streetscape Project Moving Forward: The success of the Better Block project in partnership with City leaders jump-started the downtown streetscape conversation. The City Council recently passed a bond to begin construction of the streetscape which includes many elements demonstrated during the Better Block.   
  • Property InvestmentDevelopers have begun taking an interest in downtown Ottumwa as a prime area for investment. After the project, five buildings were purchased and recently have received funding for additional housing in the Better Block project area. Many other buildings have implemented additional small projects to improve the overall look and marketability of their spaces.  
  • Statewide Impact: In partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, Main Street Iowa will be able to share Better Block concepts regionallyThis will include five “mini-build” visits taking place in mid-April across the state.     


vacant storefront was transformed to hold Blaines Bagels, one of four pop-up shops during the Better Block Ottumwa weekend. Blaine’s Bagels is now located in a permanent downtown storefront two blocks downtown Main Street. Photo Credit: Main Street Iowa

As Main Streeters, we tell people all the time about what things could bebut to show them what Main Street is working towards can change the perspective of the entire community. In just eight hours, our community’s vision became a reality. If only for a short time, we saw what it would be like to bring our Main Street back to life,” said Kelly Genners, Interim President & Vice President of Programs and Initiatives at the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation. Although Better Block and its design were only temporary, and the paint is now washed awaythe inspiration of what our community can be lives on. 

About the author: 

Michael Wagler is the Main Street Iowa Coordinator at the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Wagler provides technical support and leadership for the implementation of the Main Street Approach in 54 Main Street programs across Iowa. With over 20 years of downtown revitalization experience, he is passionate about exploring new ideas for breathing life back into downtown., 515.348.6184