Main Street, the heart of the community

Ames Main Street is part of an organization called Main Street Iowa, which is an organization housed within the Iowa Downtown Resource Center and Iowa’s Economic Development Authority focused on revitalizing the economic structure while preserving the historic value of rural and urban downtown communities. Ames’ Main Street is currently ranked no. 1 of the 48 Main Street Iowa communities in gross retail sales.

Anna Bellegante

Just as a healthy heart is essential for a healthy body, the same principle can be applied to cities and towns. Without the strong, vibrant pulse of downtowns, the communities these downtowns support can often crumble. 

Main Street Iowa is an organization housed within the Iowa Downtown Resource Center and Iowa’s Economic Development Authority focused on revitalizing the economic structure while preserving the historic value of rural and urban downtown communities.

Main Street Iowa currently serves 48 communities in the state; however, all of these communities had to be accepted into the program.

Ames applied to be part of Main Street Iowa shortly after the program’s inception, but was rejected. With the help of the Main Street Cultural District, which was established in 2004, Ames demonstrated that it was making quantitative efforts to improve its downtown.

Ames reapplied to Main Street Iowa in 2009 and was accepted into the program. Ames was recognized at the 2012 Main Street Iowa awards ceremony in Des Moines for completing the three-year start-up phase required of all new Main Street programs.

Tom Drenthe, executive director of the Main Street Cultural District in Ames, said a majority of the benefits that Main Street Iowa provides occurs in the first three years, because newer programs need more assistance getting started.

But once Ames’ Main Street got started, it grew by “leaps and bounds,” Drenthe said.

Ames’ Main Street is currently ranked number one of the 48 Main Street Iowa communities in gross retail sales. This accomplishment is impressive, considering the customer base in larger communities such as Valley Junction in West Des Moines.

In addition to retail sales, business retention is also one of Main Street’s strengths.

“Turnover . . . is lower than a lot of the other communities just because it’s a lot easier to do business here and be able to sustain profits in a community that draws a lot of people in,” Drenthe said.

In 1977, the National Trust for Historic Preservation conceived a model called the Main Street Four Point Approach. The approach includes economic restructuring/business improvement, design, organization and promotion. Iowa Legislature adopted this national model in 1985 with the establishment of Main Street Iowa.

Michael Wagler, state coordinator for Main Street Iowa, said that the approach is unique among other economic models because it creates a sense of community pride and a sense of place.

“We help foster and empower the local community to revitalize the area . . . and drive development into the downtown district,” Wagler said.

Wagler feels the strength of the Main Street Iowa Program is directly connected to the success of the local Main Street programs.

Ronn Ritz, owner of Skunk River Cycles, said businesses are fairly consistent because many are family owned, and the few vacant spaces on Main Street tend to fill quickly.

Despite the success of Ames’ Main Street, it does face challenges. Two are space and parking limitations. Even though Ames’ Main Street doesn’t have a hotel or movie theater like other Main Streets, Ritz says the diversity is what makes Main Street special.

“You don’t have to vacation to find Main Streets, but you can find them pretty easily in your backyard. Every town isn’t the same every place you go.”

Aside from space limitations, getting customers to shop downtown instead of “big box” stores such as Walmart or Target is a challenge. Ritz says while those stores may have the convenience of one-stop shopping, they don’t offer the special services downtown businesses provide for their customers.

Another challenge Main Street faces is online shopping. With just one click, people can buy almost anything at 3 a.m.  from home. But consumers may not have the knowledge or experience to make good purchasing decisions.

“[When it comes to] getting the best product for [the customer’s] needs, I think a face-to-face conversation makes a big difference,” Ritz said.

Personal customer service does set small business apart from big business, but Terry Stark, co-owner of Chocolaterie Stam, said that the secret to Ames’ Main Street’s success is its location. CNNMoney ranked Ames as the ninth-best place to live in 2010. Ames’ location on I-35 between Des Moines and Minneapolis also creates healthy traffic for the city. In addition, Iowa State draws people to Ames for its education, research and employment opportunities.

Location is not the only thing that makes Ames’ Main Street successful, though; the people who live here make a huge difference, Stark said. 

“We have a lot of visionary [business] owners . . . who are not afraid to try new things. And we work very well together,” Stark said.

One of those visionary business owners is Matthew Goodman, city councilman and owner of gyro and superdog carts in Campustown.

In 2006, Goodman seized an opportunity to add an additional cart to sell both gyros and superdogs at the same location on Main Street. Located at the intersection of Main Street and Douglas Avenue, Goodman says the people downtown appreciate his business trying to sell a good product, even though it’s not in a building.

While Goodman admits his downtown vendor is not as competitive as his Campustown locations, he has seen the business on Main Street grow over the last six years. Catering to a younger crowd on Campustown means relationships are built and severed quickly as students graduate. But on Main Street, Goodman says the customer base is a little older and more “adoring.”

“The dynamic of downtown is that those relationships last a lot longer,” Goodman said.

In addition to business owners, volunteers for the local and state Main Street programs contribute immensely to the success of each program. Between 2009 and 2011, Ames’ Main Street volunteers logged over 10,000 hours.

Wagler said Main Street is the heart of the community, not just for employment purposes, but for identity — displaying first impressions and demonstrating the quality of life.

“The downtown truly becomes the definition of a character of a community,” Wagler said.