Training the Trainer in Ottumwa, Iowa

Better Block partnered with Main Street Ottumwa, Main Street Iowa, The Iowa Economic Development Authority, and many others under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct a Train the Trainer workshop and Better Block project in downtown Ottumwa, Iowa.

After starting the conversation three years ago with the Iowa Economic Development Corporation, the chance to bring Better Block to Iowa came in the form of an NEA Our Town grant in 2017 to Inspire Opportunities In the Arts (IOWA). As part of the grant, Better Block submitted a proposal to conduct a “living charrette” and implement creative placemaking strategies as part of a larger workshop for leaders of the Main Street Iowa program.

Before and after of an intersection in Ottumwa.

The location chosen for the project was East Main Street in Downtown Ottumwa, Iowa, a former coal mining town of (now) 24,000 along the Des Moines River. While its Downtown is undergoing revitalization efforts under a Main Street Ottumwa program, including facade restoration and streetscape improvements, and a few pioneers have started local businesses on Main Street, many of the storefronts remain empty, giving residents and visitors little reason to linger in the area.

As part of Better Block’s process, we visited Ottumwa in July 2017 to conduct community surveys, meet with stakeholders and residents in the area, and kick off the project with a public presentation. The surveys were well received, with more than 350 responses to questions regarding the Downtown area.

Wheatpaste Gallery

One of the recurring themes on the survey was the lack of places to eat and shop Downtown, as well as a need for kids’ activities and a low perception of safety. With these concerns in mind, and armed with a list of people in the community who could help, we set about creating a concept plan for the 300 block of East Main Street.

To address the lack of businesses, we identified four local entrepreneurs (through the surveying process) to test their ideas out during the event. We partnered them with property owners on the block to gain access to the space, graphic designers to help with branding and storefront design, and local volunteers to help with building shelving, cleaning out the spaces, and any other prep work needed to get the businesses up and running. Better Block secured all the permits and insurance needed for them to operate for the weekend, and we partnered the one food business with another restaurant on the block in order to utilize their licensed kitchen.

The storefronts that livened the block for the weekend included Blaine’s Bagels, Mary Sue’s clothing boutique, Battle Bros. kids’ play zone, and Healing Heart Reiki Studio. We also enlisted Peace Tree Brewing out of Knoxville, Iowa to set up a temporary bar inside a historic theater on the block.

Additional businesses open during daytime and evening hours help increase the perception of safety on the block, as more “eyes are on the street” when storefronts are filled with people instead of boarded up. Lighting also affects perception of safety, so we strung lights over a dark, empty lot that took up one corner of the project area.

In this lot, we also set up a kids’ play area to address the repeated request for more kid-friendly spaces on the block. With the help of volunteers, we constructed a bridge structure as an homage to Ottumwa’s legacy as the “City of Bridges” which included a slide, balance beams, and games. We lined the edge with food trucks and filled the lot with live music and picnic tables throughout the evening to provide an outdoor space for families of all ages to gather.

Ottumwa has a well-loved trail along the Des Moines River that is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the Downtown area. To reconnect it and encourage active transportation to the trail area, we connected East Main Street to the bike trail with an on-street bike lane. Trees provided a buffer between cyclists and car traffic, and sharrows bridged the gap between the lane and other amenities when the traffic lanes became too narrow to accommodate a bike lane. To slow down traffic flowing down Main Street, we also added curb bump-outs with planters, tape, and paint to mimic the long-term street improvement plans that Main Street Ottumwa has for the block.

Part of the project included activating the historic Ottumwa Theatre, a space in the heart of Downtown that, until recently, had been boarded up for decades. The Legacy Foundation in Ottumwa brought the theater up to code in recent years, but it still lacks an operator to complete its renovation and turn it into the community space it once was. During the Better Block weekend, we opened up the doors to the theater and invited people to enjoy dance classes and a pop-up bar inside, and the stage hosted its first live music show in a generation. The money raised from the concert is being used to install restrooms in the theater in order for more events to be able to take place.

While we were able to plug businesses into four of the vacancies on the block, there were still four others being used as storage on the block that we were unable to gain access to. To prevent these from being an eyesore on the block, we enlisted a local graphic designer to create vinyl illustrations for the windows, and a local artist wheatpasted photos of historic Ottumwa memories on the other two.  

All of the above was built and assembled in less than eight hours by a group of 120 volunteers, both from the community and participants of the Main Street Iowa workshop that took place the day prior. Though the weather was cold and cloudy, hundreds of people came out on the night of October 12 to enjoy the interventions and check out the pop-up businesses.

The women’s boutique had record sales on its first night, and the bagel shop sold out every day it was open. We heard from a number of parents how happy they were to be able to drop their kids at the supervised play zone while they were free to grab a beer and roam the block with their friends. “It just feels safe down here,” we overheard one parent say to another.

In a survey sent out after the event that received more than 100 responses, the intervention most mentioned as residents’ favorite was the landscaping. We received 22 tree donations, plus wholesale pricing from a local business owner on 50 trees, 80 mums, pumpkins, hay bales, and corn stalks that we used to beautify the block. Many of the trees are being donated to the parks department to be planted in neighborhood parks, while others are being planted in existing (but empty) tree grates on Second Street Downtown.

The second most-loved element of the event were the pop-up shops, followed closely by the kids’ play area in the vacant lot. The bagel shop, women’s boutique, and Reiki studio were all thinking of opening up permanent locations before the event, and we hope the success of their pop-ups encourages them to do so. Mary Sue’s boutique already has an agreement with the property owner to pop-up during future events Downtown. And another restaurant has decided to move downtown.

Above all, the installations allowed residents and stakeholders to visualize the block in a different way. Many survey respondents requested that the vacant lot be permanently turned into a park or public space for residents, that outdoor seating is sorely needed, and that live music be programmed regularly at the theater. As one survey respondent put it, “This has the potential to provide a shot in the arm for Downtown.”

Better Block will be back in Iowa in the Spring of 2018 to consult with five more communities on creating their own Better Blocks.