Chamber director meets with Main Street Elkader

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Janis Lerch, right, is a downtown business owner and current president of Main Street Elkader. Emily Yaddof, left, is the program's new director. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Guttenberg Chamber of Commerce Director Emily Sadewasser sat down with Emily Yaddof, Elkader Main Street Director, for a Q&A about the opportunites, challenges, and logistics of the Main Street Program. 

Sadewasser and chamber board members have been investigating the Main Street Program for improving Guttenberg’s downtown shopping district since a public meeting in October with Jim Engle, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Program. 

Yaddof was hired in Elkader following the retirement of long time director Roger Thomas. She was previously employed by the Cedar Falls Main Street Program as the coordinator of events and promotions, focusing on marketing, events, and the program’s online presence. 

How is the program funded? 

The Main Street Program requires an annual operating budget of at least $30,000 per year for at least three years, which is used, in part, to hire a director. Philosophical and financial support from the city government is also a necessity for application, and most governments of cities Guttenberg’s size contribute about $12,000 annually to the Main Street budget. The rest of the funding often comes from private investors, local foundations, fundraisers and events, industries and financial institutions. 

Some programs are partially funded by self-supported municipal improvement districts (SSMID), and investment property owners agree on to pay for improvements in that district. 

“In Elkader we do an annual investment drive, which is where a large amount of the funds come from. We send a letter to the businesses and they contribute for general program support,” Yaddof explained. Individuals in the community also donate to help keep the downtown thriving. 

What services or resources have been useful? Yaddof described various challenge grant opportunities as some of the best resources for Main Street communities. Main Street facilitates the grant applications, and typically affected business owners provide matching funds. One new grant requires commitment from at least two restaurants in the community to apply, and if received, will bring experts from the Iowa Restaurant Association to help with marketing, revitalize menus, and provide an assessment. Main Street’s Open for Business Competition provides up to $10,000 for growing businesses, and Elkader has even received a challenge grant for building improvements. 

“Some of the grants we received redid the facades of our buildings. I have a whole new storefront,” said Janis Lerch, owner of Elkader Floral, who also serves as the president of Elkader’s Main Street Program. “That grant has impacted me highly, but others help businesses to grow and come to our town, and that indirectly affects all of us.

“Main Street is your go-to. If you have a project, a question, a quest, or an issue, you go to Main Street, and there’s usually something that we can do,” Lerch said. “Main Street helped the Opera House get back up and going. It helped with the renovation of our theater. Rock-a-dot received one of our grants so that they could update and get their business going. One grant helped renovate buildings to turn them into the JEM Spa and to have the loft apartment upstairs. They now have solar panels atop their roof, and they received a grant through Main Street to do that as well.”

Lerch credits Main Street with downtown rejuvenation after the flood of 2008, and notes that Main Street can also act as an umbrella organization. “We’re working to raise funds to build a depot museum in our town, and until we were able to get our 501c3, we were able to use Main Street’s,” she said. Next on Main Street Elkader’s agenda is a grant to renovate the upper stories of downtown buildings, especially for loft apartments. 

Who serves on the board and volunteer committees? Main Street Iowa brings technical assistance to 52 participating communities statewide. Each community has a board of directors, a paid executive director, and four volunteer committees that manage organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality. Committees are made up of any number of volunteers who help with fundraising, give design advice, and more, depending on their expertise. 

Yaddof emphasized the importance of downtown business owners and employees participating in the Main Street Program in a hands-on way. “In Elkader, my board president and vice president both own businesses downtown, and about half of committee members own a business in the downtown community. It’s also important to have people from outside the downtown, like the industrial areas.” One city council member acts as liaison to Main Street and attends all board meetings. 

What is the relationship between Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce? “In Elkader, the Chamber does a couple of different events and I help with word of mouth,” said Yaddof. The Chamber director recruits business participation, while Main Street promotes Chamber happenings within their district. “We can only promote things that are within our district, but the tourism office can promote anything happening in the community.”

How does Main Street help attract new businesses? “There is training for that,” said Yaddof. A market analysis opportunity can provide an expert to role-play an interview between a potential business owner and members of the Main Street economic vitality committee. “We set up a meeting, show available spaces, and tell the buyer what type of customers and incentives are available in the community,” Yaddof explained. 

Lerch moved her Elkader business from the highway to the downtown in 1996, because she saw an opportunity to grow her business while supporting and getting involved in the community. “I take pride in the community here, because not everybody has what we have.” Lerch says that since she’s been involved in Main Street, there has always been ample volunteer help – from silver cord students and churches cleaning up city parks and alleys to community members helping with events like Art in the Park and Rhythm on the River. 

Since Main Street began in Elkader in 1991, there have been 79 business starts and expansions, 135 new jobs added, 147 building projects, over $5 million invested in projects, 33 buildings sold, over $2 million invested in acquisitions, and 121,000 volunteer hours. 

“It’s an investment in your town,” said Lerch.

Guttenberg Chamber of Commerce is planning an ‘After Five’ social hour in April, when business owners and community members will be able to meet informally and talk with Main Street representatives from Elkader. 

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