Main street program seeks to spruce buildings, grow businesses and attract people



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DES MOINES, Iowa — For Centerville, becoming part of a program that helps enhance historic downtowns could mean spruced up buildings, efforts to attract businesses — and maybe even a chance to convince a few people to move in.

The community of about 5,500 people in southern Iowa was one of two recently admitted into Main Street Iowa. The program — established in 1985 in coordination with a national effort — provides qualifying communities with training, technical assistance and other resources as they seek to improve their downtowns.

Mary Wells, director of Main Street Centerville, said she hoped that improvements would help keep more people living in the city.

"Our youth are leaving. When people graduate, they go off to college and they don't come back," said Wells. "I would like to see young people living in our historic downtown, working in our downtown."

The addition of Centerville and Grundy Center makes a total of 53 Main Street communities in the state, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. The state is spending about $1 million in the current fiscal year on staffing and resources for downtown support, including Main Street Iowa. Additional state and federal grant dollars have also gone to communities, said authority spokeswoman Tina Hoffman.

To become a Main Street community, cities must go through an intensive application process. The program follows development principles created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Center. The overall goal is to pursue economic development while honoring historic preservation. Communities must show they have clear strategic plans, local investment and organized volunteers.

"It's about empowering communities to create their vision. The neat thing about them is they're all different. It's volunteers determining the vision," said Hoffman.

Cities of every size have been in the program — from the historic Valley Junction District in West Des Moines, to Bonaparte, a town of less than 500 in southeast Iowa that bills itself as the smallest historic main street community in the country.

Susan Bradbury, an Iowa State University professor, who has written several articles on Main Street Iowa, said Iowa's program provides more support to small rural cities than many other similar state programs. She said the investment provides an economic boost to those areas.

"When you compare main street communities to similar size communities that are not part of the main street program, the main street communities are doing much better in terms of attracting people to downtowns. They also maintain more businesses," Bradbury said.

Rural Iowa has been hard hit by population decline, as people increasingly move to bigger cities. But for smaller communities dealing with population loss, even a small boost can make a big difference, said Bradbury, who teaches in the department of community and regional planning

"I found that smaller cities, even if they can create few jobs and keep (a few) more businesses, that contributes a great deal to the livability and the attractiveness. It helps protect against the leakage," Bradbury said. "The program gives them a great deal of pride."

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