First Impressions Survey. Elkader gets high marks from visitors

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Deb Stroschein, Copper Frog

Kathy Josten, Bridge Street Boutique & Gift

Janet Pries, Willow Creek

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


You never get a second chance to make a first impression—and apparently Elkader’s downtown merchants don’t need one. 

According to the results of a recent survey, rolling out the welcome mat is just business as usual for shop owners and businesses located here.

Elkader’s downtown area was part of a “First Impressions” survey done under the auspices of Main Street Iowa. The survey is designed to help communities learn about existing strengths and weaknesses as determined by first-time visitors. Survey results can be used to generate discussions on a variety of tourism-related topics.

Ten women from New Hampton, Iowa, earlier this summer made their first-ever visit to Elkader. They rated their experience in nearly 50 categories; the results were shared at a special meeting held Monday. Overall, Elkader scored high in all segments of the survey but rankings were especially strong in friendliness-related categories

“If you don’t start bragging on your town’s friendliness, you’re missing the boat,” said Darlene Strachan, Main Street Iowa deputy director. “People like coming here, and you should be very proud of that.”

Survey participants used a 5-point scale for their ratings with “1” representing “strongly disagree” and “5” equating to “strongly agree.” Elkader received mostly 4s and 5s. The only low marks were associated with ease of finding the downtown from Highway 56 and lack of directional signage.

“There’s comfort in signage,” Strachan said. “It’s the ‘follow the Yellow Brick Road’ concept. People take comfort in knowing exactly where they’re headed.”

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the survey.

Survey respondents were impressed with the town’s online presence with 67 percent giving Elkader’s website a strong rating. They described the site as informative and easy to navigate. One respondent was especially impressed with the online listing of restaurants and menus.

The first impression of the town received a favorable rating from all of the participants. “Very attractive; makes you want to shop and explore,” wrote on participant.

“That’s what you want to read,” said Strachan. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Others commented on the historical look of the downtown and its well-maintained appearance.

Most of the survey focused on the immediate downtown area since that’s the emphasis of Main Street Iowa. However, some questions were directed at the area immediately surrounding downtown. Again, the respondents were impressed with what they saw—70 percent said the area should pride in ownership.

“I don’t see this in every report I unveil,” Strachan said. “One person wrote that Elkader ‘looks like a great town to live in and raise a family.’ Again, that’s exactly the sort of thing you want to read.”

Occupancy of downtown buildings, traffic flow, general appearance of buildings and the condition of downtown streets were also highly rate, though 20 percent did say that some streets needed work.

The town got its only “poor” rating on signage for parking. Respondents were split on the availability of parking. On the day of the visit, parking was plentiful but one person noted that, “on a busy day, it might be harder to find parking close to Main Street.” But that wasn’t a problem for at least one other person who wrote, “to me, it’s a good problem to have when you have to drive one or two blocks to find parking.”

One of Strachan’s favorite comments came at the end of this segment: “If I were just driving through town, I would want to stop and shop. It would be easy to do that with availability of parking, etc.”

One of the survey’s strongest ratings came in response to questions about variety of goods and services available downtown. More than 70 percent applauded the diverse retail mix. Responses were also strong in questions related to feelings of personal safety. In fact, a question designed to understand whether Elkader is friendly to pedestrians received the survey’s highest rating. 90 percent agreed that the town is pedestrian-friendly.

“I asked several (people) where stores were located,” wrote one person. “Every one was very pleasant and friendly. One woman gave me info and a few minutes later came back and corrected what she had told me.”

There was a strengths and weaknesses section to the survey. Strengths included friendliness, cleanliness and variety of shops. Weaknesses included weeds in sidewalks and lack of signage.

Visitors were asked to talk with owners and employees at various businesses, and then rate their interactions. Said one woman, I was impressed that everyone I asked for recommendations was eager to praise the whole city and never made anyone place stand out more.” Said another, “Most employees and business owners gave great recommendations. Not enough time in the day to see it all.”

While the survey results did point to some areas of concern like signage and some maintenance issues, the overall tone was decidedly positive—which surprised very few people in attendance at the meeting.

“It really just reinforces what we already know,” said Elkader Mayor Bob Garms. “This is a very, very special place.”

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