Renewal renewed

Jacob Lane · Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Talk is cheap according to the old phrase. Well, two West Liberty organizations are ready to stop talking and start doing.

The Downtown Task Force is teaming up with the Muscatine County Historic Preservation Commission (MCHP) in order to renew downtown revitalization efforts in West Liberty.

It’s no small task, and a big talking point. But, it can be done.

“Preserving Downtown West Liberty is already in process, so, yes, it’s definitely possible,” says MCHP Commission Chair Lisa Wertzbaugher. The good news:

“The largest hurdle, getting the downtown district registered on the National Registry of Historic Places, is complete,” she says. “In all our other projects this step had to be completed first.”

The MCHP specializes in revitalizing historic places in Muscatine County. The commission is particularly good at finding the funds and grants needed for such projects.

They’ve partnered with the Downtown Task Force, a recently formed group of West Liberty community members whose purpose is to renew the downtown area around Third Street.

Together, the two aim to breathe new life into West Liberty’s historic downtown district.

To kick off this partnership they’re holding a Spring Shop Hop, May 5-7, to showcase all the retail, leisure, and dining opportunities downtown.

The goal is to get people to the area and talking. For instance, the West Liberty Index office will be open Saturday, May 6, for citizens to stop in and fill out a survey about what they would like to see downtown.

The survey will include questions about what types of businesses, restaurants, events, and leisure opportunities people want to see in downtown.

Meanwhile members of the Downtown Task Force will be at the West Liberty Foods Market to host a Q&A with the public on their plans for 2017 and beyond.

The Spring Shop Hop marks the beginning of several ‘once-a-month’ community events that the Downtown Task Force hopes to hold.

Their aim is that, while community events play out over the year, they can gauge what sort of businesses would be ideal for the downtown area.

This leads into the second phase of renewal, pursuing a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), a large grant given out by the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The Downtown Task Force will spend the next 3-5 years applying for and implementing a grant that could result in as much as $800,000 to $1 million for downtown revitalization.

It’s no sure thing, but when you have the brains behind the recent successful revitalization projects at the Muscatine County Fairgrounds and downtown Wilton…well, this just might happen.

“We are just in the beginning stages, and have yet to work out all of those details, but this would be a huge win for the entire community and the overall economy of West Liberty,” says Wertzbaugher.

“The bottom line is that Wilton and other communities around us are applying for this grant and getting the money and we don’t want West Liberty to miss out anymore,” she adds. “Studies show that downtown revitalization affects property values throughout the entire community and is a catalyst for business development and recruiting people to live here.”

The MCHP has raised around $2 million in fundraising projects the last three years in Muscatine County. That’s the reason the Downtown Task Forced reached out for help.

However, there are other players in downtown revitalization, including the West Liberty Chamber of Commerce and West Liberty Economic Area Development (We Lead).

“We Lead sees revitalization efforts as critical first steps for attracting new businesses to Historic Downtown West Liberty,” says We Lead Board President Sandee Buysse-Baker.

“Initially I anticipate that We Lead will be active on committees and projects; and that later the role will shift to a focus on filling the newly restored store fronts.”

We Lead has engaged architect firms for façade renderings and worked with the city to implement parts of their strategic plan. The organization has also done a lot of data gathering.

It’s also been a part of the Downtown Task Force since the force’s inception in an advisory role.

The same can be said of the Chamber, whose forte in recent years has been organizing events such as the Community Open House, Fair Parade, Picnic in the Park and the City Wide Cleanup Day just last week.

“Our strength comes from our membership, and our continued drive of making downtown beautiful,” says Chamber President Jens Zalzala.

“We can leverage our connections with our members and the city to facilitate progress,” he adds. “We will continue bringing attention to our historic downtown and its businesses with our events such as the Holiday Open House.”

The Chamber and We Lead also have strong connections to the business community, which will be critical for driving strategies that impact the downtown area.

According to MCHP Commission Chair Wertzbaugher, true success in the Commission’s previous projects resulted from partnerships and collaboration between multiple civic organizations.

President Zalzala echoes this sentiment:

“Many downtown businesses have already taken steps to renew their facades, and we think that the domino effect will continue,” he says. “With the extra support from the CDBG grant we think that businesses will be eager to be part of the renewal.”

It will also take community input during the Downtown Task Force’s community events, including the Spring Shop Hop this weekend, May 5-7.

Last of all, it’s going to take money.

“We have a strong donor base, we have had success writing grants and we have a very transparent and fiscally conservative approach to managing donor funds,” says Wertzbaugher.

“To get things done you need money and to get money you need to show you are getting things done,” she adds. “They go hand in hand, and our group has experience in driving that process.

Should West Liberty get its hands on the CDBG grant there’s potential for some big change. However, the first step will take a couple years, with a few more years of work after that.

So make sure to watch for more press as the partnership between the West Liberty Downtown Task Force and the Muscatine County Historic Preservation Commission unfolds in the years to come.

Most importantly, come experience what Historic Downtown West Liberty has to offer this weekend!
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