Downtown Facades: A Catalyst for Change

Shawn O'Shea | with 0 Comments

Downtown Facades: A Catalyst for Change

The population of Wilton, Iowa, has steadily increased since 1990. The community boasts a new library and community center built in 2010, the new elementary school opened its doors just last year and they are now embarking on a downtown façade improvement program. How is Wilton successful at getting these projects off the ground?  
According to KWQC, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently visited Wilton. In Zuckerberg’s post following his visit, he links upward mobility as a possible attribution to the success of Wilton. As an Urban Planner, I appreciate Mark’s point of view, however, I strongly feel that the credit goes to the community leaders and community at large for their success.
The current downtown façade program is a direct result of the City of Wilton Downtown Revitalization Plan 2015. The City wrote a plan they believed could realistically be implemented, not simply put on a shelf. So, they are putting the plan into action.
The façade program, like many others in Iowa, is a catalyst to making change happen in a small town. It’s very dramatic in a small town when there are 25-30 total buildings in a downtown and they refurbish 10-15 in one construction season. Throughout the duration of spring to fall, the transformation is quite significant.
The challenge for many small towns is getting projects off the ground. A community sees the need to do something to their downtown and community leaders know they need to help privately-owned commercial properties.
Solution A:
Some small towns have downtown revitalization programs that were started by awarding one business per year the funds to paint, purchase windows and repair their storefront.  This strategy works if it’s the only option; however, it takes a long time to make an impact on your downtown.
Solution B:
Another solution involves bundling funding sources to leverage funds. This solution can have a larger impact to the downtown with faster implementation. Some communities, like Wilton, have found success through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and leveraging additional City funds and private property owners’ contributions, which equates to a sum of money that can make a big impact. Leveraging funding with a CDBG through IEDA (Iowa Economic Development Authority) also helps increase excitement from the property owners and the community.  
Pooling resources is a huge way to leverage funds in order to improve the entire downtown’s appearance. Façade improvements can be one of the first major items to be done to build a new direction for the downtown.  With each successful project, it is easier to move onto other downtown improvements like streetscaping, sidewalk repair, street repair, utilities, etc. Everything spurs from the success and promotion of the last project, to move the downtown toward a path of real change. Soon, there is more traffic into the downtown, which attracts more investors because they are able to see that the City is willing to invest money in revitalizing the downtown and the community.
CDBG funding, through IEDA, provides funding for downtown revitalization, sewer and water improvements, community facilities, housing and economic development programs. Funds are limited and the applications are competitive. The CDBG Façade grant specifically, takes a lot of front-end work and requires a year lead time prior to the application in order to get all the tasks and organization needed to apply.
Façade improvements projects take approximately 2-3 years once CDBG funds are awarded.
Year 1: Application
  • Year prior to application, start application process.
  • Annual applications are due in January.
Year 2-3:  Project Year One and Two
  • IEDA announces CDBG grant recipients the summer following applications.
  • Architect and administrator work with property owners and the city.
  • Bid documents created and reviewed.
  • Lowest bid contractor bid is hired.
  • Construction begins summer and continues into project year two.
Year 4:  Project Year Three
  • Construction project is finished.
  •  Project closeout and completion.
There are many moving parts with the City, architect, property owners, Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). All architectural design elements need to go through a SHPO review process. The grant administrator ensures all federal requirements are met and acts as a liaison between all parties involved. Ultimately, the grant administrator ensures the project meets all requirements and is successfully implemented. 
Want to learn more about CDBG funding or how to get started on your downtown façade planning? Contact MSA’s Shawn O’Shea

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