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City officials would support downtown manager position

BY KATIE HEINE | JANUARY 27, 2011 7:10 AM

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New Iowa City City Manager Tom Markus fought hard to gain support for a downtown manager when he was the city manager in Birmingham, Mich.

Now, he’s backing the creation of a similar position in Iowa City. And several Iowa City city councilors said they’d likely support the idea, too.

Members of Iowa City’s Downtown Association, independent business owners, and city officials are discussing hiring a downtown manager in hopes of strengthening the area and maintaining a vibrant environment.

Markus, who took over as Iowa City’s manager in December, said the goal of the position would be to “build relationships among businesses while having someone there to focus the discussion and direction.”

“Once you build that kind of relationship among landlords and business owners, you can set direction, determine the market, and decide what businesses would fit in,” Markus said.

In Birmingham, the executive director of the Principal Shopping District — a comparable position — is in charge of meeting the needs of the area and recommends other towns create similar positions.

“This structure creates a cohesive, unified downtown message that helps bring people to town,” said John Heiney, who holds the position in the Birmingham. His duties include deciding how to spend money downtown, recruiting businesses, and overseeing four committees that explore marketing, special events, physical improvement, and business development.

Though some Iowa City business owners have suggested creating a downtown-manager position for years, it never received enough support.

But with several storefronts left empty in the wake of the 21-ordinance and the simultaneous development of such areas as the Iowa River Landing in Coralville, some downtown business owners said they are eager for help sustaining Iowa City’s competitiveness.

Karen Kubby, the owner of Beadology, 220 E. Washington St., and an active member of Downtown Association, said a downtown manager would be able to steer businesses to Iowa City and fill property openings, including those left by bars.

“When something goes away and leaves a void, why not make a plan to fill that void?” Kubby said.

Additionally, a more vibrant downtown could help designate Iowa City as a destination location, she said.

“Of course, Iowa City should be a place for locals to shop, play, eat, and live,” Kubby said. “But we want people to say, ‘It’s only an hour’s drive, it’s easy to get to, it’s got great food.’ ”

The most likely source of funding for the position — and the one used in Birmingham — would include additional property taxes for downtown businesses, said Wendy Ford, the city’s economic development coordinator.

“It’s critical that the mission and goals for using any tax funds derived are stated clearly to the folks footing the bill,” she said, noting that any specifics of increasing property taxes are not yet known.

Four councilors said this week that they would support a downtown-manager position as long as funds were not drawn from the city budget.

“If businesses are willing to impose taxes for improving and keeping downtown vibrant, I have been supportive,” Councilor Ross Wilburn said. Councilors Mike Wright and Susan Mims also said they likely would support the position.

Mayor Matt Hayek noted this type of position is common in other cities.

“If property owners vote on voluntary positions to bring in new tenants and rental, I think I would support that,” he said.


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