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E. Iowa's small towns work to draw tourists

James Q. Lynch

The Gazette
August 23, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

  SIOUX CITY — Fish — trout, to be exact — might hold the key to West Union’s future.

  ‘‘They tell us we’re famous for the trout streams,’’ Nancy Dunt said Tuesday during a break in the 20th annual Iowa Downtown Summit.

  The summit has drawn delegations from many of the state’s smaller communities for a couple of days of brainstorming and listening to experts on how to make their downtowns thrive. Dunt, who attended along with her husband, Mayor Merlin Dunt, said Main Street West Union hopes to attract people coming to northeast Iowa for the trout fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor recreation by improving the Fayette County community’s historic buildings and offering more retail shopping.

  Main Street is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which helps communities capitalize on the unique identity, assets and character of their downtowns to strengthen their social and economic well-being. In Iowa, the program is part of the Department of Economic Development, which hosted the twoday conference that continues today. Central City has made significant progress in restoring several historic downtown buildings, said Denise Levenhagen, the city’s public librarian and a Main Street board member attending the conference. One of the Linn County community’s goals is to bring some of the thousands of visitors to Pinicon Ridge across the road to shop or eat downtown.

  Whatever it is that makes their community special is their ‘‘competitive edge,’’ said Jim Engle, who grew up in Sigourney and who now heads the Wisconsin Main Street Program. ‘‘Embrace it. Take advantage of your trump card,’’ he told nearly 200 participants at the conference in Sioux City.

  Engle offered no guarantees, but Suzanne Ackermann was excited with the quality of ideas she heard during brainstorming sessions.

  Ackermann, a retail shop owner who is part of the fledgling Main Street program in Washington, Iowa, called the organization ‘‘a combination support group and delivery system.’’ One applicable idea that caught the attention of Patricia Forsythe of West Branch was using the Internet to help revitalize bricks- and- mortar downtowns. At one session, she heard how a century-old men’s clothing store in Spencer has used online sales to become Iowa’s No. 1 seller of Robert Talbott neckties and Bill Khakis pants.

  ‘‘We’re always trying to create retail that will survive even though we don’t have a lot of traffic,’’ Forsythe said. ‘‘Well, this is one way to increase the traffic.’’