IC Downtown District to celebrate first year

BY STEFAN JURAN | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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Iowa City has been through a number of challenges in the recent past, from a fluctuating economy and new ordinances to natural disasters and fires. Despite these hindrances, new businesses and projects continue to bloom throughout Iowa City — a trend that the Iowa City Downtown District has worked to encourage over the last year.

The Downtown District will celebrate its first anniversary at 5 p.m. today with an open house at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St. The community-wide event will include local food and musical performances as well as discussions of the district's future plans and reflections on its projects over the last year.

The district consists of business and property owners in downtown and in the North Side Marketplace, who, over the last few years, sought to form a group to maintain a "progressive, healthy, and culturally vibrant urban center." Their petition for a Self-Sustaining Metropolitan Improvement District was approved in 2012, and the result was the Downtown District.

"There are so many owners downtown that have different personalities and opinions when it comes to the topic of improving downtown," said Joni Schrup, a Downtown District special events committee member and the owner of Discerning Eye. "We felt that an organized group like [the Downtown District] would help corral that positive energy and use it to help Iowa City business."

The district's efforts over the last year include Benchmarks, the painting of downtwon benches by local artists; Tree Huggers, a project that created hundreds of knitted sweaters for trees downtown; and seasonal sidewalk sales among local downtown businesses.

Karen Kubby, the Downtown District president and owner of Beadology, said the goal of the programs were to beautify downtown while bringing more attention to the area.

"All of these projects create cultural vibrancy downtown," she said. "We wanted to create a lot of visual activity downtown to add flavor and give people new reasons to visit downtown."

The creativity the Downtown District has added to downtown has been recognized in magazines all around the country, including Midwest Living and Martha Stewart Living. District members said they believe this recognition has fueled the growing initiative.

"The growth of the Downtown District has led to more community members going out of their way to volunteer their time to make the city look beautiful," Schrup said. "It has been wonderful to see a cohesive effort to making our city more appealing and safer work so well."

Along with the goal of making downtown more appealing, group members said they have worked and continue to work with the city to make downtown more accessible. Before this coming fall, all downtown parking ramps will give drivers the first hour of parking free. This also comes with new ways drivers can pay for their meter use as well. 

While the district — which consists of retail, food, and entertainment providers — used to divide into separate groups, the Downtown District now works as a single entity to reach its goals. Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg, said the new approach has proven successful thus far but can sometimes create sparks within the group.

"With hundreds of owners in Iowa City covering over 1 million square feet of area, [it] can be tough when we are all trying to move forward," he said. "We share the same goals but sometimes we can have different ideas on how to approach them."

In addition to working with the city, the Downtown District has worked on numerous projects with the University of Iowa. Having university officials such as UI Business Manager David Kieft on the Board of Directors has allowed the group to build a sturdy relationship with the UI, which the members hope to maintain for future endeavors.

"The university understands the importance of accessibility and appearance of the campus and the surrounding areas, so it has invested more than $100,000 in the district to keep those visions upheld," Kubby said. 

District organizers said they plan to celebrate their first year this evening in a way that gives community members a sample of all the things the district has to offer in one centralized location. Attendees will be greeted with samples from numerous Downtown District eateries, along with the chance to meet with business owners as well.

The program following will allow the group to further describe its latest projects and feature addresses from members, including Executive Director Nancy Bird. The highlight of the night, however, will be the entertainment, which will include musical performances by some local artists and some special entertainment that only attendees will have to privilege of knowing.

"We are required to have a yearly meeting between members," Bird said. "But we thought if we had a program that included the public community, it would serve as a great way to inform and celebrate our success."

What: Iowa City Downtown District Anniversary Open House
When: 5 p.m. today
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
Admission: Free

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