Retail-Scapes Studio Helps Lyon County Residents Dream Big

January 7, 2015

Lyon County Improvements

From revitalizing Main Street and renovating a library to creating river trails and improving water quality, the possibilities for increasing local tourism and quality of life seemed limitless to Lyon County residents after viewing their county through the eyes of 28 Iowa State University design students. 

These senior- and graduate-level design students worked with Lyon County through the Retail-Scapes studio class, an interdisciplinary course open to upper-level students majoring in architecture, interior design, graphic design, landscape architecture, and community and regional planning. The class, taught by ISU College of Design faculty members Lisa Bates and Tom Neppl, exposes students to economic development issues and opportunities in Iowa communities.

In 2011, a new economic development opportunity presented itself in Lyon County when the Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort opened its doors a few hundred feet from the Iowa-South Dakota border. The casino and resort draw thousands of people each month from nearby Sioux Falls, SD, and other parts of South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. However, casino goers typically visit Grand Falls without venturing to other nearby destinations. 

Jane Goeken, ISU Extension and Outreach community development specialist, was the catalyst between Lyon County and the Retail-Scapes studio. She learned that the Lyon County Extension Council was seeking a way to tap into the potential economic benefit of the casino and recognized the potential for a valuable partnership. Goeken brought the Retail-Scapes studio to the attention of Steve Simons, Lyon County Economic Development director, who embraced the idea. 

“The ISU Retail-Scapes course is a unique and interesting project and partnership that has real-life value to the students,” said Simons.

 “For Lyon County, it is an opportunity for the students to study us and produce retail or tourism projects that may be implemented by the communities in Lyon County,” he said. “It is a win-win opportunity.” 

Bates agreed. “I think we saw this as a great opportunity for both the county and the ISU students,” she said.

In addition to an interesting study of the impact of Grand Falls on tourism, the enthusiasm and support of the local population made the project both attractive and financially feasible.  

The students first visited Lyon County January 25–26 to tour sites and interview residents, providing them a framework within which to propose appropriate design strategies. Bates, Neppl, and the students visited towns, businesses, and area attractions such as Gitchie Manitou State Preserve, the Blood Run National Historic Landmark, and Lake Pahoja Recreation Area. They also met with business owners, residents, and government officials throughout Lyon County.

The students were required to develop their individual design programs based on research findings and their observations and conversations during the January site visit. 

“This is very typical of an actual, professional design project where the professional designer must develop the program for the design based on what she or he is hearing from the client,” said Neppl. “Lisa and I did not provide the students with the design program at all. Rather, we required them to develop the program.”

“We believe it’s appropriate for our students to be the authors of the design program, as this is going to be the experience they’ll have as practitioners,” he added.

Financial assistance from the extension council, the Lyon County Riverboat Foundation, Lyon County Economic Development, and Rock Rapids Development Corporation made it possible to charter buses to transport the students the 230 miles from Ames and provide meals and lodging during their stay in Lyon County.

The initial site visit was followed by a videoconference in February during which the students presented their initial design strategies to Lyon County residents and gathered feedback. 

The class spent the remainder of the semester developing and refining their design based on peer review and faculty critiques. They also made video presentations to stakeholders in Lyon County. The final design proposals were presented on April 27 in Lyon County at the Rock Rapids Community Center.

“Overall, we were greatly pleased with the turnout of local Lyon County residents to our January site visit, the February video presentations and the final presentations on April 27,” said Neppl. “Our students noticed how well attended these meetings were and they are appreciative of the local interest and support.” 

While the semester and the project are over for students in the Retail-Scapes studio, things are only beginning for residents of Lyon County, as well as Bates, Neppl, and Goeken, who will continue to follow up with stakeholders to see how their recommendations are being put to use.

The Retail-Scapes studio is part of the Iowa Retail Initiative (IRI), a project funded by the Office of the Vice President for Extension and Outreach with the goal of bringing extension professionals, researchers, faculty, students, and community partners together to improve the quality of life in Iowa by creating thriving rural communities.

“It is wonderful to have local ISU Extension and Outreach staff across the state. They are able to keep us up to date on progress. While some of the proposals are manageable in the short term, there are many that take more time to implement. Continued contact with our partnering communities is a priority of the Iowa Retail Initiative,” said Bates.

Additional information about IRI is available at