Monticello downtown assessment: Part 3

By: 
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

This story is part of a three-part series showcasing a recent downtown assessment program for the City of Monticello. 

On Oct. 31, the five professionals from Des Moines invited the public to attend a meeting at the council chambers where they revealed some of their findings about downtown Monticello. 

Dennis Reynolds, with Reynolds Urban Design, provided some insight into the 1,000-foot walking distance theory. 

“This is a distance that retailers have figured out. It’s amazing how consistent it is,” he said. 

Almost every shopping mall/shopping center is 1,000 feet from anchor to anchor. Three blocks equals 1,000 feet. 

“As people, we have this thing built in where we’ll walk 1,000 feet without saying we’re taking a walk. We just do it,” said Reynolds. 

He said downtown Monticello has two 1,000- foot walking spaces: From Regions Bank to the Renaissance Center, and from the Renaissance Center to S. Main Street. 

“Both offer different shopping experiences,” showcased Reynolds. 

When it comes to the vacant buildings in the downtown, there are several opportunities and action to take in an effort to get them filled. Robin Bostrom, a business specialist with Main Street Iowa, said a vacant building means a loss of revenue, sales tax, and property tax. 

“An empty building pays fewer taxes than an occupied building. That’s not good for anybody, especially your schools,” she said. 

She urged the city to be proactive to fill the vacant buildings. Rather than posting a for rent or sale sign in the window, visually showcase what could be done with the space. Hold walking tours and invite the public into the empty buildings. Brainstorm a list of what the community wants to see inside the empty storefronts. 

Along with the empty storefronts are the empty second-floor spaces. Sarah Grunewaldt, director of Main Street Iowa Washington, said a successful community, a successful downtown has two things in common: people and good buildings. She said once your buildings are in great shape, you need to attract the people. Upper-story housing is one way to do that. 

“Downtown really creates a built-in market for your businesses, and also a place people want to be,” explained Grunewaldt. “If people see people, they want to be there. If people see empty streets and sidewalks, they want to leave. 

“The more people that are downtown on your sidewalks translates to more opportunities, additional businesses.” 

In addition, Grunewaldt explained that having renters on the upper floor generates additional revenue for the businesses. 

“The business owners pay their mortgage on the building on the housing, not on the business downstairs. That’s the key.” 

Grunewaldt urged the city to take a tour of the upper floors: know how many units exist in each building, how many occupants, what people are paying for rent. She said the city could also offer incentives for people to spruce up their second floors for housing opportunities. 

Aside from permanent housing, they could also be turned into Airbnbs to generate more hotel/motel tax. 

“Monthly rent is awesome, but overnight-stay places are also needed, especially with your fair and events you want to bring in,” said Grunewaldt. “You need more options of places for people to stay. Heads in beds spend money.” 

In marketing the downtown, Jeff Geerts, special projects manager with Community Development, said the city needs to have design standards for signage. 

“Think about the look of the signs, some consistency in size and shape. Maybe some sort of a theme,” he said. “Think about the placement of them.” 

Geerts said in the three days the team spent in Monticello, they noticed a great sense of pride in the community, in the downtown. He said there are some quick, simple things that can be done to the downtown to make it look attractive in the short-term like new paint and window coverings. Or take a group throughout the downtown and cleanup some problem areas. 

“It can be quick remedies that can make a big impact. Show some curb appeal. Pride in the downtown.” 

Overall, Jim Engle, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center, said there are many good things going on in Monticello: industry, location between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, residential pride, recreation, mixture of businesses, landmark businesses. 

“We consider this a real working downtown. The businesses here really do serve the community,” praised Engle. However, he added, “I wouldn’t call it a touristy downtown with lots of gift shops that pull people from out of town necessarily.” 

The five-member team said if people and groups come together in Monticello and work on some simple, short-term projects, reapplying for the Main Street Iowa program in two years could be a win. 

The written report from their three-day visit won’t be available for several weeks. 

“After you get the written report, we do recommend you convene a lot of different people, take a look at the report and try and prioritize,” said Engle. “We’re more than willing to come back if you can bring groups together.” 

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