Downtown could grow in spite of ourselves


Operating a social media driven local news organization has opened my eyes to people who don’t believe in the future of downtown Fort Madison.

There is a very specific group of people who live in this community who have given up on Fort Madison being a destination location.

A quick look at what is currently underway along Fort Madison Main Street district should give everyone reason to rethink what’s happening.

We started with Jeff Eisentraut and family being instrumental in getting a theater reopened under their management and providing new releases to the Fort Madison residents for the first time in close to a decade. Some nights the parking is scarce because of the attendance at the theaters. Lights, Camera, Action is only hosting three shows this summer because the theater is now open.


The Hesse 7th Street Marketplace has put five new store fronts in the district. There’s a new art gallery close to opening. Business owners are getting together to make plans for a streetscape along Avenue G when that street is torn up as part of a separation of the aging storm water and sewer lines per federal regulations. Granted, that work won’t even begin until probably 2020 because it’s set to be done after the Hwy 61 renovation is done over the next three years.

The Amtrak Depot is still held up in paperwork but that could have the potential to bring people into the downtown area. Some logistical things still need worked out, but former Mayor Steve Ireland had a pretty specific plan in mind when the city started pursuing that plan under his leadership.

As a community, we can’t give up on those dreams. It’s a disservice to the former mayor and the business owners in that district.

The Main Street group and the businessowners themselves are putting together events to bring people downtown, but people need to go there as well. You should shop locally if and when you can.  We clearly have naysayers in this town, but I think the people that believe in this community and its potential far outweigh those that have given up.

I was in Iowa City for a jazz festival last week. It really is a neat event, although jazz is consumed in different ways and sometimes the music fits my tastes and sometimes it does not. But that really is beside the point. Thousands of people flock to the Pedestrian Mall (Ped Mall if you’re a local) to sit on the grass, take a nap, and listen to music in front of you, beside you, and behind you. Food vendors line the adjacent streets and the smell of smoked meat and fried funnel cake waft over you.

The streets are blocked off in the Ped Mall and Lee and I went in to Molly’s for a cupcake while walking around. I asked the lady if it’s bothersome to have the streets closed down and is it hurting business. “We’re typically busy, but when there are events like this that shut the street down, it can get a little crazy,” she said.

But putting on a jazz festival like that would take some doing, but a block party wouldn’t. Standing near a swing while I was finishing my s’more cupcake, I read in the campus newspaper that Iowa City recently put on a block party in which more than 5,000 people attended. Businesses stayed open, there was some alcohol served, music was played, and people were just free to meander and enjoy the event. The paper posted some Facebook comments on the event and the majority were requesting the city do it twice a year.

Our downtown puts on holiday events and the Big Buckle Bash, this year they had summer street fair among other things. But people need to turn out for these events. The very same people who say the downtown is dead…and you know who you are…need to come down and see that it’s not.

There’s a new victorian art gallery opening soon. There’s another person that just has an art studio she works in. Ian Hauck has an art studio anyone can work in for about $50 a month. We have an art gallery, a wedding outfitter, one of the most unique bars I’ve ever seen with and awesome sign that reads. “Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms”. There’s a dollhouse supplier that also serves old-fashioned ice cream. Sure, you have your service businesses too, but all downtowns do. There’s a steakhouse, a place to by scrubs and get pet supplies…in the same building. You can buy western clothing, get a hair cut, and find a microwave. We have a diner that has the fourth best maid-rite in the state and a grocery right there in walking distance of all of it. You can get your car fixed while you walk down to get your teeth fixed or your eyes checked. You can get your computer fixed or see an attorney. You can find a place for your student to get help with homework and college prep classes, while learning to make a quiche. There’s even a doctor in the house.

Barker Financial of Iowa City has secured building permits for work to finally begin on the upstairs apartment projects which will include renovating the Cattermole Library and the old Lee County Bank building. Some plans are included there for the Sears building as well. You should see workers any day now.

I also read that another town in Iowa with a “dying downtown” got a boost when a mother of a family that lived on the outskirts of town formed a group of women to invest annually in one  building at a time in the downtown area. The story caught on to local, state, and even national media outlets and things are catching on there. Oskaloosa (a town of 11,000) has the Golden Goose Club – another group of 90 women who all pay $10 annual dues and make a quarterly $100 tax-deductible donation and then pick two community projects each year to help fund the revenues.

This isn’t to say any of this could or should happen here, but it’s that innovative spirit that keeps things from dying. People need to have ideas.

How about a Community Basket for Fort Madison? Burlington does very well with their event. Service organizations could sell the tickets as could PAW or the local scouts or the band, athletic boosters, whomever, and we could hold the drawing at Riverfest to help bring even more people to that event each year. I’m just spitballing…there’s no detention here. Charles and Jenny Craft and that group of people are pumping energy into that program every year – right along that beautiful riverfront that can be seen right from downtown.

We need to have our eyes fixated on the future, not the past. We can have that future, we just need to believe in our own future and, as Robin Delaney so aptly put in her column in the Democrat, the “Never Say Yes to Anything Crowd” to the side and keep thinking of Mayor Ireland’s vision.

4 thoughts on “Downtown could grow in spite of ourselves

  1. As a former Fort Madison resident (I still consider it my hometown) and a current member of the Golden Goose Club in Oskaloosa, I couldn’t agree with you more! A little bit of effort can go a long way if we stop waiting for someone else to change things and get involved ourselves! I’m excited to see the new things you’ve mentioned happening in Fort Madison the next time I visit!

    – a slight correction to what was printed – the Golden Goose Club actually contributes to four projects each year (one per quarter). If you’re ever passing through, check out our fun Alley project (a great place to hang out) and the new sculpture tour around town. So far this year we have helped purchase body cameras for our police department and donated to the start of a Big Brothers Big Sisters program in our community. These projects are proof that a relatively small group of people can make a big difference when they work together. With around 90 members (we always welcome more) contributing just $100 per quarter we are able to fund each of these projects up to $9000.

    Good luck Fort Madison!!

    1. Jennifer, thanks for the clarification. And we love Osky. We always stop at Smokey Row for the Cheeseburger Chowder, a bagel and phosphate. One of our family’s favorite stops. I did notice the alley when we were through three weeks ago. Looks like a fantastic addition to a nice Main Street effort.

  2. My Business partner and myself have started a committee that meets every Friday at 1pm in our store at 718 ave g to help bring back some of the things Fort Madison has lost over the years such as,Dragon Boat Races,Haunted House down at the old Fort,we invite you to join us at one of our meeting.

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