BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A walk down Avenue G today shows a smattering of empty store fronts, cracked sidewalks and dilapidated curbing. A dismal sight on the surface. But a look deeper shows the story may be just the opposite.
With the Eisentraut family reopening and reinvigorating the Fox Theater and Jimmy and Hitomi Wendorf announcing plans for the Hesse building at 7th and G, life is being breathed back into a hope that Fort Madison’s Main Street district can, once again, become a retail destination for the city.
Visits downtown for Chinese or a beverage after business hours show parking spaces are rare, especially on the west end of the district with people taking in an evening movie or stopping at Faeth’s Cigar Store to have a drink and visit with friends.
Fort Madison Main Street Coordinator Cassie Gilbert says she’s excited with what’s happened in the past three months and hopes that it serves as a springboard for other business owners to take a look at downtown, if not for the first time, then maybe a second or third time.
C.U.R.E. Business Solutions is poised to reopen in the 600 block of Avenue G. C.U.R.E was formerly downtown in a location close to where it is going back. A fire forced them to move out to the west end of town, but the firm is very close to reopening in a building purchased from Brenda Derr when she moved her location two blocks west and added an old-fashioned ice cream station.
Dave Taylor has taken over 10th Street Station and is a shining example of how a new owner can take over an existing customer base and make it work.
Dr. Roy Tinguely has opened up an office on the south side of the 700 block of Avenue G after years with Fort Madison Physicians and Surgeons on the Fort Madison Community Hospital campus.
Gilbert said the recent growth in the district needs to inspire others that dreams of business ownership is not as far off as it may seem.
“The Hesse building idea is great, it’s different,” said Gilbert, who’s been with the Main Street District since July. “One of the things we need to do in order to distinguish ourselves from other downtowns is come up with these unique ideas. And let people know that we are a historic downtown, but we want to have great ideas and help any of those great ideas to get all the assistance they need.”
The night traffic is one of the better surprises this year. With businesses like the theater, Dollhouse Dreams, the Okinawan Karate on Tuesday and restaurants like the Atlas, Taste of China, and Choung Garden open late, it’s a good time to come back downtown at night again. Dollhouse Dreams fell victim to high winds in March and is now located just west of the storefront being repaired.
Gilbert said 2016 was a rough year with longstanding businesses like Bonnie Howard’s The Bookmark and Gary Pilkington’s JoLynn Shoe Shoppe closing due to retirements. She said that’s going to happen, but the younger generation should realize there is potential in those businesses and those now vacant store fronts.
“We have at least five new businesses or owners here, one of those is moving back,” she said. “2016 was a bit of a rough year. We had a few flagship stores close and that’s going to happen, But we need to show the opportunities to take over those businesses, as well as being places for them to start their own business.”
Barker Financial out of Iowa City has taken ownership of the old Lee County Bank building, the Cattermole Library, and the Sears Building but are only looking at fully rehabbing the first two. Options for the Sears building are still up in the air.
“The lower story retail sections need work, but they aren’t in bad shape,” Gilbert said. “Right now, having them finish two buildings is better than none.”
Gilbert said the upper story apartments, which is the key to the rehabilitation efforts due to the federal funds used being earmarked from flood relief funds, are another great thing that’s going on in the Main Street District.
“We do have a lot of really nice apartments down here. Right now we have at least two that are available, if not more. If I know about them, they are usually posted on our Facebook and then I can get interested people connected with the business owners.”
Gilbert said anyone with potential business ideas should reach out her to help clear up their ideas and get options for help getting started.
“One of the first things they should do is call us because we may have access to resources they haven’t thought of,” she said. “Small Business Development Center can help with business plans, figuring out financing and stuff like that. I have access through Main Street Iowa that can help as well. The city has loans available as well as tax credits that can be applied for if you own the building.”
She said another good starting place is the Chamber or Main Street Facebook pages and websites.
“My overall focus now is filling the empty spaces we have. Quite a few on 800, 900 and 700 blocks of Avenue G. 600 block is ok. That’s my first go-to thing and that’s what I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year.
Christy Kelly, owner of Junque to Gems, said she’s excited now for what may be happening.
“I think it’s great future-wise,” she said. “It’s going to be more business for everybody, right?”
But she said the current structure won’t change her business plans or hours, but she left the option open for the future.
“But who’s to say what the future holds with everything just being new,” Kelly said.