Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Main Street Day Two: Inspiration

If Sunday’s National Main Streets Conference sessions were all about information, the emphasis Monday was on inspiration. Meyer & Myers represented Chariton at the opening plenary at Civic Center of Greater Des Moines and Alyse was tuned in via streaming video as a “virtual attendee.”

You can go virtual, too, I believe, for the morning general sessions today (A Four Point Approach to Economic Development) and Wednesday (Overcoming Challenges to Growing Your Organization). Just go here at 8:30 a.m.. The closing plenary also will be streamed --- at noon on Wednesday.

Monday’s opening plenary began with the incomparable Isiserettes Drum and Drill Corps. Wow! Anyone still slightly drowsy when they started was wide awake by the time they exited the stage, bringing the theater to its feet.

The session opened with the annual State of Main Street report, generally positive primarily because private investment remains strong and success stories still are being written as public funding shrinks during tough economic times. Main Street program outlooks in Wisconsin and Arizona are unclear because state economic development programs there have been reorganized into untested public-private formats. In other states, including Virginia, budget-cutting threats to Main Street have been rolled back.

The high point of the plenary session was Edward T. McMahon’s lively keynote address. McMahon is senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. Addressing what he characterized as the “sustainability revolution,” he contended that a 50-year love affair between consumers, retail and strip shopping centers is coming to an end; that evolving consumer behavior, high-priced gas and internet shopping are redefining malls and big-boxes as “retail for the last century.” The future, he said, belongs to town centers, main streets and mixed-use development. Let’s hope.

It was the sort of thoughtful cheerleading presentation that everyone concerned about the future of small-city economies and their town centers should hear and I wish we could have recorded it and brought it home with us.

It was fun, too, to see 2011’s five National Great American Main Street Award winners honored --- Beloit, Wisc., Fort Pierce, Fla., Newark, Del., Silver City, N.M., and Lansing, Mich.


The afternoon highlight for me turned out to be a seminar with a fairly boring title: “Using USDA Rural Development Programs for Upper-Story Housing Projects.” Think about how much “upper-story housing” potential there is in Chariton and you can see why I picked it.

Tony Putz, of USDA Rural Development, outlined but did not go into extensive detail concerning USDA aid programs --- shrinking like many government programs.

The inspiring part of this presentation came when two developers detailed projects that parallel hopes and dreams for our Hotel Charitone. LaVerne Hanson Jr., co-president of MetroPlains, LLC, which is redeveloping Creston’s Hotel Iowana, comparable in many ways to the Charitone, due for completion in November, was at the podium first.

Then Tom Bishop, of Homestead Affordable Housing Inc., went into great and fascinating detail about his firm’s restoration into subsidized senior housing of the Bartell Hotel, an 1870s structure in Junction City, Kansas, that in its deteriorated form made the Charitone look like a paragon of well-keptness.

By knocking several smaller delegates to the floor in a session-ending rush, I snagged the last free copy of Susan Lloyd Franzen’s 240-page book about Junction City, the hotel and its ultimate salvation.  It most likely will end up in Preservation Commission hands.


The conference Expo opened at 1 p.m. Monday --- and there’s a ton of stuff there to look at, all sorts of free take-home inspiration, interesting people to visit with, cool stuff to drink and the most comfortable seating in the Polk County Convention Complex.

I visited with the folks from Chariton’s Wayne Manufacturing, who have a Christmas streetscape display, fingered commemorative trinkets from several vendors, admired streetscape paraphernalia ranging from park benches to street lights, and was completely captivated by a firm that uses paint (rather than destructive chemicals or sandblasting) to “restore” old brick buildings with painted facades (the Penick Building came to mind).

Visions of Johnson Machine Works danced in my head as I visited with a guy from Kansas who crafts cut-steel “banners,” more usually seen in faded canvas or vinyl, for streetlight poles to tell the stories of cities who commission him.

And there’s a ton of free Main Street material to take home, too.


Ray and I will be back in Des Moines beginning with Tuesday’s general session and I believe Alyse plans to be there, too.

I’m tentatively planning to attend three seminars: “Keeping Original Windows for Better Energy Efficiency,” “Event Evalutation: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (this will come in handy at the historical society, too, where events threaten to get ugly now and then --- but rarely do) and “Making Social Media Work for Your Organization.”


It's impossible, during a high-energy and upbeat event like this that celebrates the spirit of smaller U.S. cities and their people, not to always have Joplin and its tremendous tornado-inflicted losses in mind. I believe more than 116 now have died.

Harold Camping, the old fool behind Saturday's end-of-the-world debacle, declared Monday that despite appearances to the contrary, a "spiritual" rapture actually did occur and we're still on track for complete destruction on Oct. 21.

Think of the millions spent promoting that elaborate charade based on 19th century Christianist mythology and wonder how much more effectively it could have been spent on, say, relief efforts in southwest Missouri.

And what about the millions that have been spent in Iowa and elsewhere and now will be spent in Minnesota in long and divisive squabbles about whether or not two people who love each other should be allowed to commit themselves in a way that has legal standing?

Good grief.

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