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Community Spotlight: Missouri Main Street Connection Leads the Iowa Community Expedition

January 16, 2020 | Community Spotlight: Missouri Main Street Connection Leads the Iowa Community Expedition | By: Missouri Main Street Connection |

Blog_MO_Intro_pic.jpgCredit: Missouri Main Street Connection

Missouri Main Street Connection (MMSC) had the opportunity to take Missouri Executive Directors and other community representatives on the Iowa Community Expedition in November. These community leaders visited five different communities in Iowa and learned valuable lessons at each stop. The five communities were Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Downtown Des Moines East Village, Valley Junction, and Centerville. MMSC was ecstatic that the red carpet was rolled out and overwhelmed by the royal treatment! #MainStreetOnTheRoad

MMSC believes that getting in the field and having hands-on experiences is one of the best learning tools. In the Main Street world, we believe in R&D: Rip-off and Duplicate. It is vital to learn from Main Street Communities in other states to see what projects and initiatives they are working on. Missouri Executive Directors are a tight-knit group, but they wanted to gain insight from another award-winning state—it was time for them to step outside their boxes!

MMSC surveyed their Missouri Executive Directors to see what they wanted to see and learn about. The Directors came up with many ideas—things like best practices for small towns, incentives for redevelopment, walkability vs parking/driving, building relationships, maximizing community assets, creative uses for downtown buildings, effective uses of public art, and upper-story spaces.

Iowa made for a great place to explore because it is one of Missouri’s neighboring states. MMSC asked Iowa State Coordinator, Michael Wagler, for recommendations according to the Directors’ requests. MMSC developed the route with the emphasis on being able to visit as many communities as possible. MMSC contacted the executive director in each Iowa community to get their input on restaurants, presentations, walking tours, and help with an overall itinerary.

Two of the specific purposes of the trip were for everyone to understand that there is always something to learn in Main Street and that growth is a continual process. MMSC has three former GAMSA winners in Missouri, and we are thrilled that these previous winners continue to seek innovative ideas and planned growth. Liz Haynes, Executive Director at Old Town Cape in Cape Girardeau, former GAMSA winner in MO, said, “I had so many wonderful takeaways from the Iowa Expedition! It is enlightening to be immersed in Main Street communities in this way to see firsthand what is working, why it’s working, and who is responsible for the success. Specifically, in every community, I was impressed to see the level of commitment from community volunteers in terms of gifts of time and treasure. It certainly drove home the fact that the ‘best practice communities’ are community-driven! The Main Street communities we visited truly empower their volunteer leaders with the tools and support they need to be successful!”

Ottumwa, Iowa

The first stop was in Ottumwa, IA, where Executive Director Fred Zesiger and his board president had a great presentation for MMSC. Ottumwa was in the midst of a complete streetscape overhaul. Their Main Street was closed while work was happening. In anticipation of this, they began renovating the rear entrances so their businesses would be able to stay open during the streetscape work. They showed examples of welcoming rear entrances, green roofs, effective use of planters, upper story housing, alley renovation, and incentives for redevelopment. Their city had partnered with Main Street Ottumwa to help make all their renovations possible, and they are doing a great job. Everyone was impressed with their success so far. We enjoyed lunch in Ottumwa and were able to make connections with business owners.

MMSC wanted the Missouri Directors to understand that it is always possible to learn something new to help grow their program. Tyler King, Executive Director for Downtown Washington, Inc., one of Missouri’s three GAMSA winners, said, “I’m looking forward to working with Washington business owners and committees on how we can implement new artwork to draw families to our downtown area.”

Oskaloosa, Iowa

Blog_MO_Oskaloosa.jpgCredit: Missouri Main Street Connection

We then arrived in Oskaloosa to hear a presentation by Oskaloosa Main Street Executive Director Emily Brown. She had volunteers take us on walking tours to learn more about the exciting initiatives they have started. A favorite among the Directors was the Alley Cats. A group of women were able to take an alley filled with uninviting dumpsters and transform it into a welcoming environment for live music, public art, local history, and decorations for the holidays. They put an emphasis on how important partnerships are to make these public spaces happen. Oskaloosa Main Street made use of public-private partnerships to help with planters being wrapped with historic photos, creative uses of downtown buildings, and upper-level housing.

Oskaloosa has a very active Board of Directors. It was easy to see that they are both emotionally and financially invested and take great pride in their community. The “Missouri Invasion,” as we came to be called, was inspired and impressed!

Des Moines, Iowa

We then headed toward Des Moines where it had started to snow! MMSC was welcomed into Main Street Iowa’s offices where Director Michael Wagler gave a presentation about the differences between the Iowa and Missouri state Main Street programs. While Missouri is a non-profit, Iowa is housed in the state agency for economic development. The Executive Directors were interested in the $75,000 challenge grants that are funded in Iowa through CBDG funds. The group split into smaller groups and enjoyed Downtown Des Moines for dinner.

Valley Junction, Iowa

Blog_MO_Valley_Junction.jpgCredit: Missouri Main Street Connection

The following morning, we headed to Historic Valley Junction. We had a presentation about their beautiful, historic Main Street building that had been restored in the last few years. Valley Junction is very walkable, which is one of the topics our Directors wanted to learn more about. They have 65 event-days per year and shared valuable information about their farmer’s market, concert series, and other promotional events. The local merchants had great conversations with attendees where they shared marketing ideas and how the Main Street organization had helped them.

Valley Junction had an outdoor lighting project they were working on with programmable and interactive lights. Staff mentioned that children would be able to manipulate the lights by moving their hands. They also showed us cool downtown signage as a result of a grant program. We had some free time to experience the walkability ourselves as well as the great shopping and restaurants that Valley Junction offers.

Centerville, Iowa

Mary Wells, Executive Director at Main Street Centerville, met us with several volunteers and gave us a great welcome to their beautiful downtown square. Mary gave a presentation on how Centerville, population 5,400, managed to grow and develop new businesses over the past few years.

An attendee said, “We learned about the Purple Cow and how important it is for our Main Street’s and businesses to have something unique that people will remember. The Purple Cow is something different, intriguing, and memorable that will help to create a special experience. This Purple Cow experience should have your Main Streets guests talking and coming back for more.”

Main Street Centerville is only four years old, but they have done quite well in a short amount of time. They have several new businesses and a great shopping district. They are data-driven and have learned how to maximize their assets. We divided into two groups and did a walking tour of the Centerville square. Once again, we received exceptional hospitality from the businesses we explored.

Heading Home

While on the motor coach back to Missouri, Donnie Rodgers, Executive Director of Downtown Lee’s Summit, MO, another of Missouri’s GAMSA winners, said, “One of the most valuable things about the Main Street Movement is the sharing of ideas and lessons learned. Meeting our fellow Main Street leaders in Iowa and seeing what they’ve achieved in their local communities was so inspiring. We returned home full of inspiration and renewed excitement in making our downtown even stronger than it is today.”

MMSC found this to be a valuable experience and will be looking forward to doing this type of learning experience again. In the future, we will continue to look for additional learning opportunities that continue to inspire Missouri communities.

This article was put together by MMSC.