Downtown Exchange offers insight into downtown Monticello

Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     We all know the idea behind secret shoppers, right? An unsuspecting individual visits a local business, takes it all in and reports on the establishment, employees, and quality of service.

     Well the Iowa Economic Development Authority offers a similar program for Iowa communities. The “Downtown Exchange Program” pairs similar communities in an effort to gain unbiased, useful information about your community, particularly the downtown district. Volunteers from each community plan an impromptu day-visit to the selected town, and follow that up with a “first impressions” report.

     The program is at no cost to the participating communities.

     “The process focuses specifically on downtowns or urban commercial districts and provide an excellent opportunity to find out how others see and experience another community’s downtown,” explained Monticello Chamber Director Jan Hoag.

     Monticello was paired with the City of Farley, and last week, Terry Po Buschkamp with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, presented the results to a group of Monticello community leaders.

     Typically, six to 10 volunteers from each community are ideal for the program, with each visiting the paired community at a different day and time. However, Farley sent four volunteers who all came at once.

     Buschkamp said the comments and scores Monticello received from those individuals from Farley can act as a “tool or ammunition” for downtown development and improvements.

     Each volunteer was asked to electronically answer over 40 questions after their visit in mid-August. This is just a highlight of those responses.

Q: Rank the first overall impression you formed about the downtown from researching the community online prior to the visit.

     One a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being negative and 5 being positive, Monticello received a 3.5.

     The comments included: “Aside from library information, very little into can be found online about the downtown district.” “Wasn’t really able to form an impression.”

Q: The direction signage to the downtown was easy to see, in good condition, and made the downtown easy to locate.

     Monticello received a 4.

     “We could tell where the downtown was located, but wayfinding signage would have communicated that or identified the various business districts.”

Q: The entryways or gateway to the downtown are attractive and well-defined.

     Monticello received a 3.5.

     One Farley volunteer felt that the entrance signage was adequate, but needed minor upkeep with the trimming of trees/shrubs.

     “That’s an easy fix,” suggested Buschkamp.

     Another comment: “There were a variety of entryways. None were the same.” This same person also made reference to the fountain at the intersection of S. Cedar and S. Main that is currently inoperable.

     “Water features are a big draw,” commented Buschkamp.

     City Administrator Doug Herman said the city and a foundation committee are working to restore the fountain.

     The respondents gave 100 percent in terms of their overall first impression of Monticello’s downtown. The comments referenced the large amount of businesses and variety of retail shops, the look of the downtown buildings, the charming downtown feel, and the pocket park.

     “It’s nice to come to a community with these kinds of comments,” praised Buschkamp.

Q: Rank the overall appearance of the streetscape in the downtown.

     Monticello received a 4 out of 5. The people from Farley made particular reference to the giant flowerpots scattered throughout the downtown and the decorative lighting. It was noted, however, that banners on the light poles would be an attractive addition.

Q: Rank the overall parking areas.

     Monticello scored 4.33. The visitors said they had no issues finding adequate parking within walking distance to the shops.

Q: Rank the overall appearance of the storefronts.

     Monticello scored 3. While the comments indicated the businesses all had signage out front, one said, “There are some fronts that don’t match with the rest of the downtown.”

     Buschkamp said there are downtown incentive programs to assist in rehabbing a business’ façade. The city does offer a loan program that only a small percentage of businesses have taken advantage of.

Q: Rank the overall friendliness and customer service experience when you entered businesses.

     Monticello scored a 4.

     “People seemed friendly and willing to answer questions and were generally proud of their town,” said one volunteer.

     One made particular reference to a friendly librarian and home improvement storeowner.

     The Farley volunteers than ranked Monticello’s top five strengths: Variety of retail, Renaissance Center, variety of businesses, street lighting, and proximity to schools.

     The top five weaknesses: Empty storefronts, no web presence of variety of businesses available, lack of wayfinding signage, lack of downtown consistency, and hard time locating police/fire/ambulance.

     Another common theme was lack of signage to locate a visit’s center or chamber office.

     “City offices were closed during the visit,” one commented. (The Farley group stopped in Monticello on a Saturday.)



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