Assessment provides clear look at downtown Guttenberg issues

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From left are Emily Moser, GD&T Director, Lisa Oetken, a consultant from Main Street in Mount Pleasant, city manager Mary Willett, and Jim Engle, consultant and director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center. Moser and Willett worked together to help coordinate the assessment with a team of consultants. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

A team of consultants gave Guttenberg a three-day downtown assessment last week, involving tours of the city, interviews with business owners and community members, and a reimagining of several downtown buildings. Jim Engle, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center at the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Lisa Oetken, Mount Pleasant Main Street Director, and Joe Lawniczak, design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program gave a public presentation on their findings and recommendations during the lunch hour on Thursday. 

“We believe the downtown is very important to the local economy, as a symbol of economic health, a symbol of public/private partnership, local pride, and community history, and of the quality of life for residents. Healthy downtowns typically represent healthy communities,” Engle told those in attendance at Thursday’s wrap-up meeting. “I think there are people here who are truly interested in helping the downtown along. We’ve heard frequently it’s in a slow phase right now. In my opinion, Guttenberg should spend the next year taking a look at the Main Street Program.” 

The mission of the Main Street Iowa Program is to improve the social and economic well being of Iowa’s communities by assisting selected communities to capitalize on the unique identity, assets and character of their historic commercial district. Engle recommended community members take an intensive look at the program, visit Elkader, West Union, Mount Pleasant and other main street communities, and talk with existing main street directors as well as invite someone from Main Street Iowa to give a presentation. 

The team of consultants assessed Guttenberg and determined its strengths and assets to be its solid core of long-term businesses, beautiful churches, and impressive amenities such as the library, hospital, care center, grocery store, wellness center and creative learning center. “We took a look at your comprehensive plan and thought, holy cow, this is stuff we would have recommended. That comprehensive plan has a really good, substantial downtown section, so we would encourage you to keep that in front of you,” said Engle.

The consultants admired Guttenberg’s unique downtown complete with scenic view of the Mississippi, parks, interpretive signs, eagle viewing telescopes, benches, monuments, the DNR aquarium, and impressive historic architecture. “Having a school downtown is very unique; your downtown is clean; and your promotional activities are much better than average,” Engle said, listing GermanFest, Eagle Watch, Stars and Stripes, Ghoul’s Night Out, weekly farmers markets, concerts in the park, the annual Christmas open house, and occasional sidewalk sales. “You also have a very committed city government.”

The team did find many areas of downtown Guttenberg that need improvement. Those areas were split into eight major themes, which were summarized during Thursday’s meeting. 

Wayfinding: Design specialist Joe Lawniczak explained, “There is no clear entrance to downtown from Highway 52, and the highway lacks aesthetic appeal (excluding the views). Your wayfinding signs get lost in business signs, and one of the things we heard during our interviews is that people don’t make that connection.” The team pointed out that Highway 52 doesn’t have that character that Guttenberg’s downtown has, and compared the situation to having visitors enter town through a back door. 

“We’re always fearful when that happens that people don’t really realize what a community like Guttenberg has,” said Lawniczak, who focused his design concepts on directing people downtown. He suggested a comprehensive wayfinding signage system to be completed in the next two years along with creating a corridor from Highway 52 to the downtown along Schiller Street that could include extensive plantings, at-grade medians, or an esplanade. 

Downtown buildings: “You are so lucky. The limestone buildings you have here are phenomenal – you one of the best national register historic districts in the Midwest in my opinion,” said the design specialist. “But some of those buildings suffer from insensitive past alterations, some are vacant, and some just need attention.” Lawniczak  spent time redrawing the facades of four existing downtown buildings to give community members an idea of the possibilities. He suggested talking with property owners to find out what they need, then offering incentives like loans or grants and looking into the state’s downtown revitalization fund – which can provide up to a half million dollars to redesign and rehabilitate multiple downtown building facades. 

Downtown housing: Mount Pleasant Main Street Director Lisa Oetken admitted, “You guys have the best downtown I’ve ever seen, with the view.” Community members pointed to a lack of affordable housing, and in response Oetken suggested taking a housing inventory of the downtown district to see how many units are available, occupied, and affordable. She advocated for apartments above storefronts and ordinances that protect first floor retail space. “A lot of times when you see people living on the first floor, you see your downtown start to deteriorate. Historically the merchants lived above their businesses, so a lot of these buildings have great bones but are now home to bats and storage,” she explained.

“People want to live in the downtown, and you have a built in base for customers when you have people living in your downtown. Housing in the downtown brings money to building owners and to the community,” said Oetken. “They’re really cool spaces – what better view would you have than the second story in your downtown?”

Business development: “We heard from a lot of people that there’s an increase in vacancy rates downtown,” said Oetken. “ Looking at existing businesses, your downtown is very heavy on service versus retail.” She underscored the need for succession planning for aging business owners, a market analysis to see what kind of businesses Guttenberg could support, and active recruitment of those businesses. During community interviews, the team also heard concerns about a lack of labor force and difficulty keeping good, trained employees, as well as the need for an upper scale restaurant. Suggestions included entrepreneur-friendly zoning laws and incentives, mentors for young businesses, and altering store hours to open later and stay open past 5 p.m.

The team also gave recommendations for community event planning, communication and marketing, and beautification of the city as a whole to include minimum maintenance ordinances, encouragement of outdoor displays and seating, and increased plantings along Highway 52.

A full written report on the downtown assessment will become available in four to six weeks. For a copy of the presentation given on Thursday, contact Emily Moser, Guttenberg Development and Tourism Director, at 563-252-2323 or guttenberg@alpinecom.net.

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