Thursday, October 02, 2014

Picking up cigarette butts for America

Back in basic training more years ago than I care to count, we called it "policing the area," trainees in loose formation deployed at various times to walk through areas at a training site and pick up trash, mostly cigarette butts. More people smoked then, especially in military installations, and too many threw butts on the ground. Fewer people smoke now; too many still throw butts on the ground. In Chariton, too.

I mention this now only because the Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street organization just completed yesterday our two-day annual re-accreditation visit from Main Street Iowa personnel --- Jim Thompson of Des Moines, business specialist; and Lisa Oetken of Mount Pleasant, Main Street manager there who among others assists with accreditation visits.

We passed the review with flying colors --- receiving a few suggestions for improvement --- and another year's programming has been blessed by both Main Street Iowa and the mother ship, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's nationwide Main Street program.

Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street, in close partnership with the city of Chariton and led by a crack office staff, highly accomplished board, committed investors and superior volunteers, has accomplished a lot to be proud of in two years. Community attitudes toward the Main Street Distirct (downtown) have changed, hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds have begun to flow into the city to help fund an upper-level housing initiative and facade-improvement project, Streetscape planning in moving toward the end of its first phase and, just recently, the entire district earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places as the Lucas County Courthouse Square Historic District.

Hotel Charitone LLC and the Lucas County Preservation Alliance are responsible for the recently completed Hotel Charitone project, but we bask in its reflected glory, too. Our Tourism Division consistently moves mountains to encourage visitors and make their stays here pleasant. That division's Hay Bale Art competition has this year, for example, practically gone viral --- and that was noted by our state-level friends.

However --- it was a Chamber/Main Street Design Division group sometimes called the Alley Cats and led by Sgts. Cindy Hamilton and Alyse Hunter that seemed to really catch the eye of the Main Street Iowa evaluators this year. We have gathered at 6 a.m. one Tuesday morning a month April through October since Chariton was admitted to the Main Street program two years ago to conduct old-fashioned policing actions.

We generally start with a sweep around the square to pull the occasional weed and pick up loose trash --- and as the months pass hundreds of cigarette butts. The sweep takes less time now because business owners and others have become more conscious of sidewalks, curbs and litter (although many always have been).

Once that's done, we generally go to work in specific areas --- often alleys, hence "Alley Cats." During September, one project was the sidewalk in front of a building on North Main now in ownership limbo --- we pulled weeds, picked up rubbish (including shards of broken glass), swept and carried away. Then, just because we could, pulled more weeds in front of an occupied building and excavated its sidewalk, half obscured by years of creeping vegetation.

In doesn't seem like much, although we (and others) have noticed the difference as the months have passed. It's a small project that involves no cost, incremental in line with Main Street's overriding philosophy, So we were kind of surprised at the level of praise from Main Street Iowa personnel --- and that more communities aren't doing something similar.

And it needs to be kept in mind that there are dozens of small projects like this underway in all the Chamber Main/Street divisions that add up to an impressive overall program.

But I'm bemused by the fact that after more than 40 years I'm still out there picking up cigarette butts for America. And cursing careless smokers, even through I smoke now and then myself. But hardly ever in public places and the butts always go into my pocket when I'm done. So there.


Another interesting Chamber/Main Street-related event that occurred earlier this summer was a "First Impressions" visit by an anonymous delegation from Osceola, our neighbor to the west. This Main Street program is designed to give a community an idea of how it appears to visitors. Darlene Strachan, Main Street assistant state coordinator, was down a week or so ago to share the results with us.

Chariton fared well, with a few exceptions. As far as an overall "first impression" of downtown was concerned, the visitors gave Chariton a "4" rating ("5" was the top), but noted that there was no "visible branding effort or a comprehensive marketing effort for the downtown/community." The delegation expressed displeasure with the covered arcades that line some areas of the square. "Covered walkways are ugly and in disrepair," was the comment pulled out and included in the report. They really did not like the arcades and said so on several occasions.

Off the square, the visitors really liked the commercial area in west Chariton focused on Hy-Vee and ShopKo and thought the Hospital/clinc areas were attractive.

Downtown, overall, the visitors found the area pleasant, safe and pedestrian-friendly --- but noted several times that the sidewalks were in poor condition.

Asked to note five "defining or distinctive" downtown feature, the visitors listed the courthouse surrounded by mature trees, the bandstand, the Hotel Charitone, Chariton Vision Center and historic plaques on the buildings (noting early names and dates of construction).

Five strengths were: "Square seems busy; friendly Chamber/Main Street (we loved that one); parking; friendly retail personnel; and opportunity."

Weakness included "traffic pattern confusing; shingles; disrepair of upper levels and empty storefronts; and needs more vibrancy." Sidewalks were singled out as being in need of immediate repair or maintenance.

When asked to briefly describe ambience, the visitors described downtown as "friendly and somewhat active (and) relaxed, content and happy, City Hall NOT FRIENDLY" --- in all caps. Oops.

Asked to visit three shops and have lunch, the guests noted that "all employees were very friendly"; the Charitone was described as "awesome" and visitors noted that they had been greeted well and that the "bartender was very informative and proud of the town." The (Harbor House) Christian store was described as especially "nice."

Asked to list five things they'd like to take back to Osceola with them, the vistors noted "activity, neatness, courthouse, Charitone and Pipers and the many storefronts." Asked what they would change first, the visitors listed "update/refurbish streetscapes, sidewalks, curbs and lighting" and "beautify the alleys."

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