Thursday, March 08, 2012

Launching Main Street

Main Street Iowa's Darlene Strachan and Michael Wagler led a meeting open to all at the Freight House Wednesday evening that both introduced the program and launched a wide-ranging effort to obtain as much public input as possible (Sorry about the lighting, but my camera has its limits and the Freight House is a big place).

Main Street Iowa personnel were in Chariton Wednesday for the first of many sessions with Chamber-Main Street personnel specifically and Chariton residents in general that will launch the program here during 2012 --- an opportunity to become better acquainted, learn more about Main Street and begin the drive to involve as many residents as possible in the volunteer-driven program.

As you may remember, Chariton was one three Iowa cities to earn the Main Street designation during early February (the others were Lansing and Jefferson) after a long and complicated application process. Much time has been spent since working out the details that will produce an integrated local Chamber-Main Street organization to implement the program. There now are 48 Iowa Main Street communities.

We gathered for a working lunch in the parish hall of First United Methodist Church, one of two historic churches in the Main Street District --- nine complete blocks incorporating "the square" as well as extensions to include architecturally significant churches (First Presbyterian is another) and the William Perkins-designed American Legion Hall.

A review of our successful application was among the most interesting parts of that session. Although the application was in general described as strong and well-organized, the great oral presentation designed and led by Karen Wilker and Kevin Graves during mid-January made, as we suspected, a substantial impact. It went so well, in fact, that we were worried about what we'd do next year --- if this year's application were unsuccessful (which, of course, it wasn't).

A walking tour of the Main Street District followed and the high point of that, I thought, was an invitation from Attorney Amanda Demichelis to tour the renovation project coordinated by her husband, Jason, on the second floor of the Demichelis building on the northwest corner of the square.

This great old building, built by the Smyth family, stretches a full half block from its frontage on the square (housing the Gold Boutique and Copy Plus) along North Main Street to the north. Its second floor, once offices and living quarters, has been abandoned behind blocked windows for years.

The Demichelis have been working since acquiring the building last year to reclaim that wasted space --- commencing with major repairs to the roof. The eventual goal is to convert the south half of the upper level into loft apartments, but for now work is concentrated in the north half of the building which will push the law firm's offices up from the ground floor via a new interior stair into spacious new quarters --- and that's going to be a considerable asset to the Main Street District when complete.

Since I was leading the tour, I wasn't carrying a camera but the Demichelis Law Firm Web site, located here, contains not only an excellent introduction to firm personnel (under "About Us") but also many photos of construction progress (under three "Expansion" categories). So go take a look.

Main Street Iowa's assistant state coordinator Darlene Strachan (left) in a carefully posed photo with Jill Kerns, Chamber Foundation board chair and a leader in the Main Street application process.

After more meetings at the Chamber-Main Street office between Main Street and Chamber personnel, we regrouped at 5 p.m. at the Freight House for a light supper open to all in the community followed by a brief introduction to Main Street and a longer information-gathering session.

Main Street Iowa design consultant Michael Wagler with Shantel Dow, Chariton Chamber director who also will serve as Main Street director, in front of one of two "magic walls."

A public input session, organized in "magic wall" format, ended the day and gave all in attendance the opporunity to answer five questions regarding Chariton as it stands now and their aspirations for it.

Asked first to name the good stuff that had happened recently in Chariton, I think we all were suprised at how much already has been accomplished that we tend to take for granted. We kept adding and adding to the list.

The recently announced project to resurrect Hotel Charitone was freshest in everyone's minds and was the most popular answer, but dozens of other improvements and accomplisments during the last year or two were mentioned, including --- a new law enforcement center, a new hospice house (Legacy Lodge), a new building for Dollar General Store, the new Community 1st Credit Union --- both business and building, extensive additions to Hy-Vee Distribution Center infrastructure, the successful ownership transition of our Ben Franklin store, the nearly complete renovation of Chariton High School, creation of an Urban Renewal District  --- on and on.

How to improve the look of the Main Street District? Do something about the planters probably was the most popular response, and my guess would be that this may be one of the first visible effects of the Main Street program. The current planters were installed as a "temporary" measure before an overnight stop some years ago by RAGBRAI --- and have just kind of stuck around. Installation last year of four new well-designed planters fabricated by Johnson Machine Works highlighted just how shabby other planters were beginning to look.

But there were all sorts of other interesting ideas, including new lighting around the outside perimeter of the square, pocket parks in underutilized alleys, an effort to "green up" the concrete boundaries of the parking areas that surround the courthouse and many others.

The outdated and in some instances deteriorating shingled arcades that front some businesses on the east and north sides of the square also took a hit. The devilish problem with those arcades, however, is that no matter how they look, they're convenient.

How to improve the business climate on the square? Lots of ideas there, too --- beginning with the most familiar: Shop at home.

In fact, there were far too many bright ideas Wednesday evening to cover --- but the good news is that Main Street personnel folded up the magic walls and took them back to Des Moines where the answers will be digested and analyzed, then returned to us in more coherent form to be discussed at future meetings.

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