What do you get when you add 11 Iowa State University community and regional planning students, one ISU Extension specialist, a progressive community and 10 years? In downtown Red Oak you get an increase in property value of nearly $500,000, a more attractive downtown area, community cooperation and a sense of pride.
In fall 2008, Alan Jensen, now an ISU Extension geospatial technology and community development specialist, returned to Red Oak, where in 1996 the students in the ISU studio course he was teaching developed a vision for the community’s downtown area.
Back then downtown Red Oak had seen its share of economic decline, building deterioration and in general, the loss of vitality as a center of economic activity, Jensen said. But the community decided to take action. The Red Oak Chamber of Commerce asked ISU to propose ways to improve the appearance of the downtown — with the cooperation of businesses, city leaders and community members.
The students conducted in-depth research, Jensen explained. They photographed every building on the square, inspected those to which they were given access and took hours of videotape to obtain a sense of the community and business environment.
In addition, the class sought community input with a written survey, a “charrette” — a design workshop during which the public was invited to comment on proposed storefront redesigns — and a public presentation. The students’ final report provided a base for storeowners and the city to move ahead with further design and development of an incentive program for storefront renovations.
So Red Oak went to work, Jensen said, passing a Downtown Urban Renewal District ordinance in late 1997 to help building owners and landowners in the retrofit, renovation or new construction of properties or second story housing developments within the designated area. The plan used tax increment financing (TIF) to generate grant funds that were awarded to store owners.
Work began in 1998, and those grants and additional investments by downtown businesses have made a difference, Jensen said. Not only have appearances improved, the buildings have been upgraded with new windows, awnings and in some cases structural improvements that will prolong the life of the buildings.
For more information, see the Community Matters newsletter, volume 2, issue 4.