“The vision became real – if only for a short time – and we saw what it would be like to bring our Main Street back to life.”
Those were the words of Steve Campbell, an Ottumwa, Iowa, REALTOR® from who spearheaded his board’s involvement in a highly successful Better Block Project in his home town.
With a $15,000 REALTOR® Party Smart Growth Action Grant, money of their own, elbow grease and lots of enthusiasm, the South East Iowa Regional Board of REALTORS® partnered with the Better Block Foundation and other community leaders to host the Main Street Ottumwa Better Block Party, October 12-15.
“Overnight, our quiet and struggling downtown commercial area became what it was always meant to be,” Campbell says. “It became a place to come together to shop, eat, play games, enjoy some music and even dance!
He says that one of the highlights is to see the old Ottumwa Theatre that had been abandoned for years come to life with a live concert on the final evening of the block party. Watch this video of the concert in the old Ottumwa Theatre:
The weekend event in this hilly city straddling the Des Moines River, included pop-up shops, food trucks, a temporary bike lane from downtown to the river, outdoor dining and games. It ended with a live concert in the long-abandoned Ottumwa Theater.
The day before the event, more than 120 volunteers, including REALTORS®, got to work setting up, stringing lights, painting the bike lane, installing landscaping, building signs and more.
The event even included a tribute to the late Michael Lemberger, a renowned photographer from Ottumwa, whose collection of 1.5 million photographs was recently donated to the University of Iowa. Several of the buildings along Main Street were adorned with giant “wheatpastings” of his black-and-white photos featuring everyday life in rural America.
The Start of Something Good
“It’s just the beginning, but it’s a good one,” explains Campbell, who recently finished serving his second term as president of the 400-member regional board, which was organized in 2015 by consolidating eight smaller boards.
“The great thing about the Better Block Team is that they help you see what could be in a tangible way,” Campbell says. “Yes, the block party is over, but the inspiration to continue rebuilding our downtown area is alive and well.
This year’s President Carla McEntee adds, “We are so proud to be a part of this wonderful downtown revitalization project in Ottumwa. Our members understand the importance of volunteerism, and this effort is extremely gratifying for all of us.”
Jamie Rix, the Government Affairs Director for the Iowa Association of REALTORS®, worked with the board to obtain the Smart Growth Action Grant, which helped to pay for event expenses; as well as consulting and guidance from the Better Block Team to help transform the weekend experience into an actual planning tool.
The Better Block team visited Ottumwa last July and met with more than 50 local groups and individuals to discuss how best to apply the Better Block process to the 300 block of Downtown Ottumwa. The focus from the start was on public art, health, transportation and economic development. Better Block also conducted a survey of community members on how to improve Downtown Ottumwa quickly and from the ground-up.
“It was just a good fit to bring the REALTOR® Party funding and the Better Block Project together in Ottumwa,” Rix says. “That city has so much potential, and the weekend event made that clear to so many people.
The Better Block project is building on what the “Main Street Iowa Program” has been doing in Ottumwa for the last 10 years.
“Main Street Iowa is a program dedicated to preserving and revitalizing the unique identity, assets and character of historic commercial districts in more than 50 towns across Iowa,” explains Main Street Ottumwa Executive Director Fred Zesiger.
Ottumwa’s Main Street District has 134 buildings, of which 41 are vacant on the first floor. There also are 57 historic buildings along three blocks of Main Street, 26 of which are vacant on the first floor.
Revitalization by Main Street Ottumwa so far has included rehabbing alleyways, putting on new building facades and restoring 49 apartments over the street level shops—all of which are occupied today.
Zesiger says the effort in Ottumwa is successful because it’s a collaborative effort. The Smart Growth Action Grant was a match for a National Endowment for the Arts Grant received by Main Street Ottumwa. “When we can put our money, skills and dedication together, great things happen.”
More than Just Good for Business
Campbell stresses that the whole project has been especially uplifting for his board. “I am convinced this project has “REALTORS®” written all over it! Being a part of the grassroots movement to breathe life back into a depreciated commercial/residential area is a challenge worth the effort…and the best part is yet to come!” Campbell says.
“As real estate professionals,” he continues, “we care deeply about bringing our downtown back. It’s not only good for business, it’s just plain good for everyone.”
For more information about the South East Iowa Regional Board of REALTORS® work with the community to revitalize Ottumwa’s Main Street District, contact Jamie Rix, REALTOR® Party Advocacy Coordinator for the Iowa Association of REALTORS® at 515-309-9348 (ext. 348).