Main Street Program, riverboat foundation, mean big changes

by Gigi Wood

WASHINGTON – Several influences have led to revitalization in Washington.

State guidance, local grants and an active community have combined to bring the small town of 18,000 into the 21st century, with a historic appeal. Washington is 32 miles southwest of Iowa City with strong agricultural, manufacturing and renewable energy industries.

During the past several years, Washington County has undergone major projects, from the $22 million renovation of its county hospital and a $5.6 million new public library to the emergence of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, which opened in 2006.

Now, the city of Washington is focusing on renovating its downtown square. The Washington County Riverboat Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the casino, has doled out millions of dollars for public safety and economic development projects in the county, including a handful to the downtown area, making various revitalization projects possible.

“The riverboat money spurred a huge part of it,” said Amy Vetter, executive director of Main Street Washington. “And then Main Street really helped get things going.”

The city of Washington became part of the Main Street Iowa program in 2008 through the Iowa Department of Economic Development. To become a Main Street Iowa community, area leaders must attend training sessions, demonstrate support from local organizations and leaders, secure in-kind funding, have strategic plans outlining short and long-term goals and historic preservation ordinances must be passed.

In return, Main Street Iowa communities receive 40 days of on-site training and technical assistance from Main Street Iowa, National Main Street Center staff and private consultants, as well as 30 days of training for volunteers and local staff, resulting in a state investment of $100,000. Each community receives continued training valued at $10,000 annually.

The Main Street program uses a four-point approach, Ms. Vetter said, that started with design assistance. The goal is to restore the historic appearance of downtown areas, so funding was provided to review the structural integrity of buildings and provide design assistance to help business owners know where to start with improvement projects.

“We worked with Main Street Iowa and provided 22 property owners with free design work,” Ms. Vetter said. “They wanted to do something but they didn’t know where to start.”

The riverboat foundation provided $8,500 for the structural evaluation work and with Main Street assistance; the city was able to pay for 75 percent of the cost.

“We wanted to give business owners an incentive to do the work,” she said.
Bodywrx Fitness Center for example, will tear down its massive tin façade and plans to make repairs to windows, cornices and do tuck pointing work. It’s a $20,000 project with a 50/50 match, she said.

Business owners are in the process of tearing down decades-old vinyl siding on building facades and restoring the historic appearance of downtown buildings. The foundation provided another $50,000 for façade improvements. The town has already completed a streetscaping project and refurbished the upper floors of buildings on the square.

“I think once we completed the streetscaping and people saw how nice it looked, they wanted to take the next step,” Ms. Vetter said.

There are other ways to improve aesthetics. Once the new public library was built, windows along the rear of the building faced a stark, white brick wall, which is the back of the Marshall’s Furniture and Flooring. The owner received program assistance to paint a mural on the brick wall, to improve the view.

Much of the initial renovation work will be done this fall. As part of the Main Street program’s four-point approach, which includes design and aesthetics work, the city must coordinate communication with stakeholders. A month-long fundraising drive to help pay for improvements started June 1. A business development committee is working on attracting new businesses to downtown, to fill the square’s nine vacancies.

Meanwhile, the city is planning new events. It recently began a progressive dinner night, where several downtown eateries offer a $3 menu item for one night. Due to high demand, it is hosted twice a year.

For 63 years, the city has put on Ridiculous Days, a combination of sidewalk sales and children’s activities, and local groups are working to extend those offerings this year. Sand volleyball and horseshoe competitions will be slated for this summer, as well. Thirty tons of sand will be trucked in for the volleyball events and poured onto the streets around the square.

A historic home was the focus of a “Heavy Haulers” episode on The Learning Channel, featuring Jeremy Patterson House Moving of Washington. Mr. Patterson moved the house closer to downtown to save it from condemnation. Work is ongoing to renovate it and convert it into commercial and residential space. Local groups are applying to place the house on the National Register of Historic Places.