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Downtown assessment offers feedback for McGregor

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A downtown assessment through the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is providing observations and recommendations for McGregor’s downtown. A team of five visited the community Oct. 17-19, and shared preliminary feedback at a public presentation on the final day. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

A downtown assessment through the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is providing observations and recommendations for McGregor’s downtown. A team of five visited the community Oct. 17-19, and shared preliminary feedback at a public presentation on the final day. 

 

“This is an opportunity for our team to come in with outside eyes to listen with you, talk with you, walk your district and learn about things,” said Robin Bostrom, a business specialist with the Iowa Downtown Resource Center who led the presentation. “We have worked in many communities of all sizes all across the state, so we’ve seen lots of examples. Many of us in Iowa are facing the same issues.”

 

The IEDA group developed their ideas by consulting previous community surveys and planning work, walking and driving through McGregor as well as interviews with local residents, business owners and public officials. 

 

Maintaining downtowns is important, said Bostrom, because they are a reflection of the community. Downtowns serve as community gathering spaces, business and resident recruiters, tourism draws and revenue generators. 

 

“It shows the local quality of life and speaks to the economic health of your community. When we care about downtown, it shows the pride in our community, and we want that to resonate,” Bostrom said.

 

McGregor’s downtown, she noted, is welcoming, beautiful and quaint with awesome historic building stock and an abundance of nearby natural resources. It offers a nice mix of retail shopping experiences rare for communities McGregor’s size.

 

Recent community master planning and visioning—paired with this feedback—puts the city ahead of the curve and to the point of implementing some of the measures, Bostrom said.

 

But there is still work that could be done.

 

Summarized Bostrom: “There are some things to address to preserve your buildings. You also have a lot of empty spaces, and we want to do what we can to fill those empty spaces and buildings. You have some first floor residential, and we never recommend that in a community. That is a detriment to your retail. You have a lot of inconsistent store hours. As a tourist destination community, that is not a good thing. A little bit of sign clutter, both from a business standpoint and also from a roadway standpoint. We also found there are some communication gaps in what people know and understand and who everybody thinks is in charge of everything.”

 

While McGregor is home to beautiful architecture, building condition is an issue, said Jeff Geerts, a special projects manager with IEDA. Building condition adds to street life and makes the downtown a more vibrant place. It’s also a major employment center and revenue source for the community. 

 

Paper Moon bookstore, for example, generates $44,000 in property tax per acre, about 40 percent greater than the per-acre property tax value of Kwik Star, Geerts said. 

 

“It shows, if you build up and utilize a building, the impact it can have on the community and community’s budget,” he shared.

 

The IEDA group counted roughly 15 empty storefronts in McGregor, all of which contribute to lost business, sales tax and city revenue. According to Geerts, that adds up to a negative $400,000 impact per year.

 

He said routine building maintenance of roofs, windows and masonry can make a big impact. The city could incentivize maintenance and utilize design specialists and resources to help building owners. Incentives could likewise be utilized to remove barriers and improve access to buildings.

 

Storefront facade improvements should be appropriate to the building’s and downtown’s historic character and not damage the building. Utilize upper floor opportunities up and down Main Street to generate revenue and provide needed affordable housing. 

 

“An upper story apartment can add $20,000 to $40,000 in economic impact per year in your downtown because they are using all kinds of services. There are many incentive programs to restore and convert those upper story spaces into housing,” Geerts said.

 

To attract businesses, Bostrom said it’s important spaces are retail ready. Even if a building can’t be immediately developed into a business, window displays or outlining potential opportunities attracts interest.

 

Refrain from using storefronts for storage, and do not allow residential in the front of retail spaces, she stressed. This pairs with another theme the IEDA group addressed: creating and enforcing policies.

 

“It’s important you protect the investment you have out here in these buildings,” Bostrom said.

 

It was suggested the city review and update the code to assure it’s business friendly. Perhaps partner with other area communities to bring in a building inspector. Create minimum maintenance or vacant building ordinances to deal with absentee owners or those who refuse to invest in their buildings.

 

“Enforcement is the number one thing that needs to happen. People will go to wherever you set the bar, and if you set the bar here and never inspect, that’s where everyone is going to be. Set the bar high,” Bostrom said.

 

She additionally advocated for a balance between short-term rentals and affordable housing. McGregor’s housing report shows about 32 percent of the city’s housing units are considered vacant, a high number Bostrom said that, when paired with little housing for sale, indicates homes are not primary residences. They are either being used for retirement purposes or vacation/second homes. 

 

“We know that’s an important component for your community, but because you have a high lack of affordable housing in the community, we need to make sure we have that balance between Airbnb rentals and the opportunity for new families to come in and live in a single family home,” she said.

 

Another member of the IEDA group, Brooke Prouty from the Marion Uptown Chamber, addressed McGregor’s downtown tourism and events. 

 

Events draw people, she said, but outside the Halloween Parade and Festival and Festival of Trees, “we didn’t really find a signature event that is ingrained in the culture of McGregor. Think about what you want McGregor to be known for.”

 

Prouty suggested McGregor expound on its history and better promote the town and its businesses at Pikes Peak State Park. Provide information packets at lodging establishments. 

 

Restaurants are needed to serve visitors on Sundays and Mondays, she continued. Businesses should also update their Google listings and signage to accurately represent hours of operation. 

 

Some businesses do not accept credit cards, which Bostrom said is unrealistic in a tourist community, where visitors often don’t travel with cash.

 

“Credit card fees suck, but you have to work that into your pricing,” she stated. 

 

Bostrom advised business owners not to duplicate merchandise and to regularly cycle in new merchandise. She said excellent customer service is expected, and staff should do all they can to refer people to other businesses.

 

Businesses should be good supporters of local events, but signs or posters should not be placed on doors or in window displays. 

 

“Create a bulletin board where you focus that,” Bostrom said.

 

This “sign clutter” expands to the street, where the IEDA group felt directional signage was sometimes hard to read or locate.

 

“The highway is an inconvenience to some but also a blessing because it brings people into town. When you’re coming into town, what’s your branding? What’s the first thing I’m seeing and where am I going?” mentioned one group member. “You have parking signs, but they are little, down low. Think about the difference of a car versus pedestrian experience.” 

 

It’s important to help visitors find public parking lots, and to direct downtown tenants and business owners/staff to also utilize those lots. Don’t let them park in front of people’s businesses.

 

Lastly, said Bostrom, McGregor should focus on communication and collaboration. 

 

“You can never tell people things enough,” she shared. “One thing we heard is it isn’t quite sure who takes the lead on certain things. It’s wonderful you have a chamber and economic development person. We hear great things about the work you’re doing, but it’s kind of unclear who takes the lead on these different activities in the community. We encourage you to define the roles and make sure the positions know their responsibility. Have regular updates in person to the council and different organizations and set quarterly goals.”

 

Moving forward, Bostrom encourages individuals to take advantage of downtown forums/conferences, resources and trainings and engage with the Rural Development Council. 

 

“There are resources to help you all get through these things,” she said.

 

The full downtown assessment report, which will be available later this month, will further outline resources, priorities and timelines.

 

McGregor, said Bostrom, should understand what it has, both from a building and business standpoint and community standpoint, and continually support business development. 

 

“Business retention is number one, but what are the gaps in our marketplace and how can we bring in someone to fill the gaps we have in our community. Find people to fill spaces so we keep those legacy businesses in our community. Work on real estate development. Educate everybody on how this works together,” she explained. “It’s important you come together as a community to do that. Communicate and educate. If businesses are good and strong, they’ll be able to survive and grow, and that’s good for all of us.”

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