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West Branch Becomes a Main Street Iowa Community

Rachel Gallegos

Iowa City Press-Citizen

June 2, 2006

More information

For more information about the Main Street Iowa program, visit /mainstreetiowa/.
For more information about the Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch group, visit

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

That West Branch was one of the three Main Street Iowa communities chosen this year was supposed to be kept a secret.

But the news was too good to be kept under wraps for long.

Members of the volunteer group Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch were invited to a breakfast Thursday morning at Town Hall. By 9 a.m., a half hour earlier than planned, the suspense was over and the surprise was announced.

"They're joining a real elite group of Iowa communities," said Mary Lawyer, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development. West Union and Ottumwa were announced as the other two Main Street Iowa communities for the year.

The goal of the Main Street Iowa program is to revitalize downtowns, encouraging economic development while preserving historic aspects of the town.

West Branch is a good example of a town that has already worked to preserve its historic aspects, so the program will help to encourage new businesses to the area, Lawyer said.

This year, Main Street Iowa chose three communities to take part in the program after none were chosen last year. In total, 49 communities have been a part of the Main Street Iowa program during the past 20 years, she said.

"It takes a lot of work at the local level," Lawyer said.

The Main Street Iowa program benefits communities by bringing in national consultants, providing architectural design services and doing 30 days of training for volunteers and local staff.

To become a Main Street Iowa community, volunteers from West Branch have already worked a year filling out the application for the program, raising money and assessing the current downtown.

Brad Larson, president of Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch, said the idea for applying for the program came from local business owners and Chamber of Commerce members.

Instead of working on revitalizing the downtown themselves, they decided to apply for Main Street Iowa.

"This was a program that already had all the plans in process," said Larson, owner of West Branch Ford for the past seven years.

Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch was required by the program to raise $90,000. But Larson said the group has about $116,000 in pledges now, including $45,000 from the city.

"We've had so much widespread support," he said. The pledges will be used throughout a three-year period, he said.

Most of the money will go to hiring an executive director to run West Branch's Main Street Iowa program, he said.

To revitalize downtown, Larson said one of the group's goals is to have all of the downtown storefronts full. Although three new businesses have come to town in the past six months, there are still six or seven spots open, including three historic buildings.

"We can't leave those buildings vacant," he said.

If downtown becomes vibrant, the rest of the town will be vibrant too, he said.

In the two weeks until officials from the Main Street Iowa program return, the group will develop four committees: design, promotion, business improvement and organization.

"I was very excited but I also know it means lots and lots of work for us," said Louis Picek, a member of Friends of Historic Downtown West Branch who will lead the design committee. "I think we're all geared up."

Picek said the design committee already has six or seven members but is looking for more volunteers.

"I'm hoping that the downtown can be even more beautiful than it is now," he said.