BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With the Main Street Iowa flag pulled in downtown Fort Madison, a group of business and property owners are trying to jump start the battery of Riverfront Business District.
A group of about 20 met this morning at Connection Bank’s community room to talk about the pivot from a Main Street Iowa downtown to the previous business district.
Stephanie Knoch, who was the president of the Fort Madison Main Street group, is now leading the Riverfront Business District. She asked those in attendance to lend their voice to the group to help determine what the future looks like, while not dwelling in the past.
“We need to get the message out that we’re working together. We need to put the past in the past. This is all brand new. This is starting from scratch. We want to have an organizatoin that is for everybody interested. They need to get past the past and look forward and work with us.
“Work with your neighbor and mend those fences. Take action. That’s what we want to do. We want to start somewhere and say, ‘look, this is where we’re going to start, this is where we want to go. Get on board, it’s a good thing’,” Knoch said.
She said there are people from the outside, like the Barkers, who are coming in to do things and the district needs to capitalize on that.
“That energy needs to be contagious.”
Several of the points brought up at the meeting focused on past divides in the downtown and the group said it was time to move on from past rifts and take advantage of recent growth and investment in the downtown area.
The conversation also comes as the city is going out for bids on a $1.55 million projected sidewalk and stormwater improvement project that will replace 6′ foot of curbing and sidewalks along Avenue G.
Budget overruns have the city looking at options of possibly doing just a three-block stretch either from 6th to 9th streets or 7th to 10th streets, and possibly a 4th block if estimates come in favorable for the extra work.
City officials are hoping to start that project in April with an anticipated completion in November.
City Councilman Bob Morawitz, who was at the meeting, said the construction is planned in phases where one block would be torn up and, while it was being reconstructed, the next block would begin being torn up so only one block is being rehabbed at a time.
Dave Taylor, who owns 10th Street Station in the downtown district and is a board member in the RBD, has suggested a membership program, and a rewards program, be implemented in the district to help raise funds, but also raise patronage at downtown businesses.
“One part would be a rewards program that would be multi level. If you are a resident, which means anyone in the downtown district or living upstairs and, because they live uptown, they get a special card that gives them discounts and advanced notice on special perks,” he said.
The other levels might include a community rewards and possibly a tourist-oriented rewards card, that would have a bit more information about special events, shops etc.
He said the membership campaign would include all businesses and services in the district and possibly a membership for developers and others who have a vested interest in the district.
He said that campaign would help generate funds for marketing and advertising purposes to take advantage of messaging.
“Over the past 20 years, small communities are starting to see a transition back to downtown business districts with internal malls going away. Now malls are being designed to look like downtown districts, even with upper loft living,” Taylor said.
“But we have to be conscious of the businesses were dealing with and be cognizant of our pricing.”
Madeline Leake, the owner of The Colony Shop and Bridal Loft, said the downtown district needs to come together for marketing
“Who will be working on the sales promotion, not the money making, but for us downtown,” Leake asked.
Knoch said the board, with the help of the Partners staff, will be handling those things going forward, but she said people need to step forward to help guide that process through the board.
Taylor said the budget of Main Street was not really funded for marketing and pledges for the budget were to pay for administration and salaries.
He said a membership program would put funds into an annual marketing campaign.
Chris Sved, who manages the Fox Theater and has his own specialty coffee brand, said the district should organize and look for growth, but conversations need to be supplemented with action.
“There’s genuine effort towards growth in the downtown specifically. I think the downtown is on an upswing and I think meetings like this are going to determine the follow through,” Sved said.
“Honestly, I think the number one thing is that we need to get the town to come and support the downtown, as well. I think the way the downtown looks sometimes, we need some attention to that and the sidewalks will be a huge improvement.”
Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce coordinator Savanna Collier said there has been some negativity about the upcoming sidewalk project with the closure of the business fronts in cycles.
“We need to make sure our merchants and retailers are really putting this construction in a positive light because this is wonderful for our downtown. We have to do a little work, but it’s going to be worth it,” Collier said.
Knoch told the group that the board will be looking to add at least four more board members and bylaws allow up to 14 board members. The district plans on keeping the committees that were in place under Main Street intact, but need people to take on those roles.