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Downtown Assessment Is Beginning of “Blueprint”

By Staff | Jul 1, 2010

The views of 120 Emmetsburg residents were part of the Downtown Assessment Visit June 22-23. The process culminated with a community meeting, with the assessment team presenting their preliminary views.

Catherine Bergman and Debi Flanders, downtown assessment professionals, were in Emmetsburg to assess the community. They came to town and interviewed more than 120 residents. They left knowing they would like to return.

Armed with information from pre-visit materials, a driving tour, a walking tour and a tour of the lake, plus interviews with community residents, Bergman and Flanders will present Emmetsburg with a written report. That report should be given to Emmetsburg Retail Association and Emmetsburg Economic Development within six to eight weeks.

“You will have a whole new level of education, beginning with the written report,” Debi Flanders told the two dozen people attending the community meeting. “The community has to validate this report and move forward. We can guide you and link you to resources.”

Bergman and Flanders presented a power-point presentation, touching on issues such as downtown value (physical value, economic value, social value and political value); and the importance of downtown (a key to recruiting, local pride and values, the unique character and history of downtown).

“Downtown revitalization is economic development,” said Flanders. “Your downtown is one of the community’s largest employers. You have prime, affordable locations for incubating businesses. You have multiple stores with multiple uses in a compact environment.”

She added that downtown should be a pedestrian friendly environment, with heritage tourism attractions and good building conditions. Empty stores on Main Street affect everyone.

When Emmetsburg residents were asked to describe “community” with one word, responses were complimentary and varied: friendly, homey, Irish, proud, traditional, progressive, comfortable, loyal, close knot, family oriented, supportive, small, safe, welcoming, established, pleasant, caring, retired, struggling, beautiful, clean, typical, spirited, strong, judgmental, together, peaceful and welcoming, just to name a few. Student responses were: family, Irish, friendly, proud, involved, sports.

Describing “downtown,” responses included: lacking, empty, struggling, small, dying, older, clean, quaint, quiet, improving, needy, historic, rustic, presentable, has potential, nice lake, challenged, growing, hurting, unused, limited, valuable, vintage, fatigued, stagnated, outdated. Student responses: quiet, small, lacking, deserted (half the time), limited, improving, quiet and small.

Assets identified by those interviewed included: health care, recreation, lake, quality of life, library, education, community theatre, wellness center, parks, golf course, family values,, safe, location, county seat, well kept, St. Pat’s, retail association, go0od place to raise a family, casino, restaurants, ag businesses, good customer service, balance of employment (professional to blue collar), people and volunteerism. Students highlighted the lake, parks, recreation, places to eat, good jobs for teens, college, St. Pat’s school activities, community activities and wellness center.

Challenges and desires were other areas identified by community residents: population declining and aging; employment, create  new jobs and recruit new industry; alternate truck route; lack of sidewalks in residential area and unsafe routes to school; walking and biking trial; outdoor pool; lake underdeveloped and not well marketed; safety, drivers do not stop for pedestrians.

Additional challenges and desires: shop local, educate consumers about the impact of shopping locally; restaurants closed Sundays; consistency of shopping hours, and limited shopping hours; diversity of products, need more variety of products; and, desire to fix downtown buildings.

Quotes from residents: “The lake is a jewel.” “The lake draws a lot of people here.” “It’s still a great place to live and raise a family.” “Our St. Pat’s celebration is a great asset.” A bike trail would be an asset.” “Our legacy binds us together.” “I was taught you spend your money where you make your money.” “Excuses don’t cut it about why things don’t get done.” “There isn’t one vision for the community.” “There’s a disconnect. People support benefits but not businesses.” ”Some people would like to sit and complain rather than take the initiative to become involved.” “We are at a crossroads.”

Quotes from students: “It’s fun if your 21.” “There’s not a lot to do.” “There isn’t a market for career paths.”

The assessment team’s observations and first impressions were:

Welcome signs greet visitors at three points. Each are alike, yet different.

Commercial district contains a variety of retail and service businesses

 There are a number of in-fill businesses.

The lake is an awesome part of the community.

Overall, the community seems tidy and well groomed.

Banners are hung downtown and reflect Emmetsburg’s Irish heritage. They didn’t notice the banners while driving, but they did when walking.

Flower planters and trash receptacles are coordinated.

Most of the storefronts have been altered from their original condition.

The Carnegie Library and church have been adapted for commercial use.

There are few residential sidewalks; many people with strollers were walking down the street.

The community website is informative.

On the walking/driving tour, the team was impressed with the size of the lake. They saw housing alternatives for senior citizens, lots of trees, and not a lot of “for sale” signs. They saw recreation, wellness center and library, business owners parking at the rear of their businesses. Some storefront appearance does not reflect the product line. There are vacancies downtown: three storefronts and three open lots. Heavy traffic poses problems in crossing the highway. They know the Retail Association and are aware of the efforts of the group.

Debi Flanders and Catherine Bergman encouraged the group to read the report when it becomes available. Then meet and review the contents of that report, be determined to commit and proceed. Identify the partners who should be involved in the process; identify previous reports that are still relevant; involve people from the Storm and visit Iowa Department of Economic Development and utilize their resource library; walk the district and look at the buildings, utilize the knowledge of local contractors; partner with the historical society to assemble a collection of photographs of all the downtown buildings and use them to compare the building condition of today and yesterday; investigate resources; review design guidelines.

“An authentic theme was created when your ancestors constructed these buildings. You don’t need to create a theme when you have one. Celebrate what you have,” encouraged Bergman. “Business owners need to educate themselves about window displays as a way to drive traffic into their stores.”

Flanders and Bergman stressed “bury negativity” – get rid of “we can’t” and “they.”

The Downtown Assessment,  known locally as Blueprint Emmetsburg, was coordinated by Emmetsburg Retail Association co-chairs Deb Hite and Laura Blanchet, and Emmetsburg Community Developer Steve Heldt, with the assistance of Emmetsburg Chamber Director Katie Kahler.