Retail Scapes rethinks Iowan community

Students from the College of Design participate in a Retail Scapes studio class that works on improving the Main Street of Jefferson.

Ashley Green

Students in the College of Design have the opportunity to make changes to the real world before they receive a diploma.

Retail Scapes, an interdisciplinary studio offered to seniors and graduate students in the College of Design, focuses on making improvements to an Iowa community each spring semester.

Students in graphic design, architecture, landscape architecture, community and regional planning and interior design are able to take the studio.

The studio is instructed by Lisa Bates, lecturer in interior design and extension specialist in communities and economic development, and Tom Neppl, senior lecturer in landscape architecture.

Retail Scapes looks at small communities in Iowa seeking design assistance.

Through connections with ISU Extension and Outreach, this semester’s focus is on Jefferson, a town of about 4,000 people in western Iowa. The town was selected because it fit the needs of both the studio and the community.

This year’s project is known as Jefferson Matters: Main Street.

“It isn’t that [the communities] are chosen, it’s more of a process of figuring out, ‘this is what the course does, does it fit any of the needs that maybe your community has?’ and finding that sweet spot with a community,” Bates said. “They get something out of it as community members and the students also get great learning experiences with it.”

Aside from the work put in by studio members, time and coordination is needed from the community to work with students and provide input. Peg Raney, director of Jefferson Matters: Main Street, said the community is excited to see what the students are capable of.

“We have a lot of ideas of things that we would love to have [students] consider for their projects, but we know it’s what their interests are as well, and their expertise as well,” Raney said.

Initially, Jefferson came up with a wish list of projects it would like to see. The main thing on the list was a brand for the town.

“[Branding] was really one of the main reasons that we thought the College of Design would work well,” Raney said.

The branding aspect will be a major goal of the studio, and in the end, it hopes to help Jefferson find a vision of what it wants to be known as, whether it be an identity, a future or something to develop emotional material around.

Students have visited Jefferson once already, taking a tour of the town and meeting with stakeholders who are involved. During the visit, students were able to talk one on one with more than 40 residents.

“We’re still kind of in the phase where we’re gathering information from them,” said Ashley Danielson, senior in architecture.

In total, there will be four visits to Jefferson, one for each month of the semester.

A casino was recently built in Jefferson, and the town is noticing those who visit stay at the casino instead of going to the downtown area.

“That’s one of the big draws that [Jefferson] wanted, for us to figure out a way to draw people to the downtown area,” Danielson said.

Students will try to draw visitors through branding, wayfinding and bringing new businesses to the town’s main square.

Jefferson is also interested in a reader’s garden that would pull their two library buildings together through an outdoor space.

“[The class] will come up with a few options for the community to see,” Bates said. “‘Does this feel like Jefferson? Does this feel like what you’re trying to state to let everyone else outside of Jefferson know about you? Is this accurate?’”

These design-intervention proposals will be presented to the community throughout the semester.

Some of the proposals will stem from what research students have done, while others will come straight from the community’s pre-identified needs such as the casino issue.

This spring’s class is heavily made up of interior design majors, which could impact the amount of interior compared to exterior designs.

“The professors have emphasized to keep an open mind and to be open to looking at different scales, so if there is an interior designer who is interested in doing large-scale planning, then they could do that,” Danielson said.

Students have to keep in mind how their proposals would affect the town beyond the physical environment.

“It’s not only the impact of this one place that they’re creating but how that then has impact on the overall well-being of Jefferson,” Bates said. “How does it impact the social capital of the community? How might it impact the economic capital?”

In the College of Design, it’s not abnormal for design proposals to remain proposals, but Jefferson intends to implement student ideas after the semester is over.

“If [students] want to have a résumé builder, this could very well be it because we’re ready to do some major things,” Raney said.

The work is done through Main Street Iowa, a program that helps selected towns to “capatilize on the unique identity, assets and character of their historic commercial district,” according to its website.

Once the semester is over, Bates can redirect Jefferson to Main Street Iowa if they need additional resources to move ahead with different projects.

Previous examples of work from the studio in past semesters center on southwest Iowa. In this area, there is an existing Western Wine Trail, which students hoped to connect with the southwestern areas of the state.

In order to connect the trails, students proposed breweries, wineries and cafés. The concepts are inspired by the pre-existing image of the towns they would be in, including interiors, exteriors and even the brands the businesses could sell.

The ideas aimed to do more than create businesses. They accommodated to main streets that don’t already have a night presence, needed more family-friendly environments or needed more engaging spaces.

With an active extension program, proximity to the university and the amount of alumni, there is already a strong connection between Jefferson and Iowa State. Jefferson Matters: Main Street can only strengthen ties.

“I think it’s going to be a very positive relationship,” Raney said of Jefferson and Iowa State.