Downtown 'Building Change' program showing progress downtown


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Leah Cohen has witnessed downtown Iowa City grow, change, and adjust over the last 30 years as the owner of Bo-James, 118 E. Washington St.

At times, that change has come voluntarily. In other instances, it has arrived by force.

But for whatever a past reason, she said, today, her business, and the greater downtown once again is seeing quite the reworking, thanks to an the on-going city and business-improvement partnership, Building Change. The last time her building’s front saw any touchups were in 1961.

Cohen is one of eight Downtown District owners who, during the past several months, have taken on the added sweat equity in helping to beautify the heavily traveled area, home to nearly 280 businesses.

Cohen, who expects to wrap up nearly all of the work at the end of the week, along with other downtown and city officials, say the first-year program pays dividends to the area’s bottom line while encouraging a domino-effect charge.

“I think when you see what a difference it makes in one of these buildings, I would think a lot of people would want to jump on board to this,” Cohen said, noting that a neighboring property owner has spoken with her about applying for funding during the upcoming round of allocations.

Nancy Bird, the executive director of the Downtown District, witnessed similar endeavors undertaken as a certified community planner and economic development specialist in Seattle.

Mirroring the thoughts of Cohen, she said both property owners and tenants should see increased sales and revenue figures.

“It’s about rising the tide so that all boats float,” she said.

Bird said in addition to the physical improvements, heightened interest has come about in inquiries for new second-floor office space.  

The city’s Economic Development Committee first approved $197,000 — ranging from $8,028 to $47,704 toward projects that will vary in cost — for the program during an April 17 meeting.

Representatives from the city’s Urban Planning, Economic and Community Development, and Housing and Inspection Departments formed a committee to determine which projects would create the biggest aesthetic impact.

The city awarded funding to Bo-James, Atlas, Quinton’s Bar & Deli, Panchero’s Mexican Grill, Chait Galleries Downtown, Active Endeavors, Yacht Club, and the Grossix Building. One prominent fixture, the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., she said, is also looking to take part.

Excluding the Grossix Building and Chait Galleries Downtown projects, more than $1.3 million has been awarded in façade, entryway, window, fire-safety, and upper-level improvements. Most renovations are to be finished before the end of August.

Tracy Hightshoe, the city’s community development planner, said officials looked at similarly sized Iowa communities, rather than college towns in the Big Ten in designing the grant process.

The sweet spot, she said in regards to similar historic-preservation projects, was found in Iowa cities with more than 50,000 residents, notably Dubuque and Des Moines, who recent years have poured millions into re-inventing their riverfronts and historic districts.

Hightshoe said, that the city is at a point where officials seek to allocate a larger grant package for the next year just to keep up with the number of interested applicants they receive on a weekly basis.

For Reid Travis, the director of marketing communications at Panchero’s, 32 S. Clinton St., the reason for investing in the 21-year-old business inside a corner building from the 1800s came about from the location’s unique historic character.

After a May 27 construction start, Travis said, the efforts will return downtown sometime this week, in a more historically accurate atmosphere. A final date is expected to be announced today or Tuesday.

“[Downtown] has always had a bit of a different feeling, and we’re trying to keep that unique,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

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