‘Deeply Connected’ to the future
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CUTLINE: The community will celebrate the grand opening of the community’s Green Pilot Streetscape Project in downtown West Union on Thursday, July 11. Walking tours will begin at 1p.m. with a short program to follow at 3 p.m. (Mike Van Sickle photo)
‘Deeply Connected’ to the future
WU Green Pilot celebration Thursday
By Mike Van Sickle
and Amber Hovey
Union news writer
When West Union Mayor Kent Halverson and former mayor Merlin Dunt lead the actual Green Pilot Streetscape ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, the event will be the culmination of a nearly decadelong endeavor by residents and officials at the city, county, state, and federal levels.
In September 2004 (see page E-1) West Union Chamber of Commerce representatives met with City Council members to discuss improving the retail business area in the downtown area.
“What you have been able to accomplish in your community is no small feat. It took buy-in, planning, investment, and a serious commitment. But because you had a vision for the future of what you wanted your community to become, you did it!”
Merlin Dunt had stressed a similar message during his mayoral election in 1997. In a column published in The Union in 2003, Dunt wrote, “Our downtown needs a refreshing facelift. First of all, our street lighting system in the downtown area is badly deteriorated, out of style and needs to be totally replaced. The project would require new poles, fixtures, bases, and complete wiring.
“In addition, some sidewalks need to be replaced. After this work is completed, some of the business buildings could use renovation (urban renewal project).
“I am convinced, with this work completed, we could attract more businesses to locate here. We could use an antique mall, boutiques, possibly a small ice cream parlor and candy shop.”
The first real steps in the journey began to take shape in 2005, when Robin Bostrom, at that time the director of the Chamber of Commerce, worked approximately four months putting together the application for the Main Street Program, which included input from various businesses, a three-year budget, and proof of funding.
Bostrom explains that the Main Street Program, part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, works with selected Iowa communities in the area of economic development within the context of historic preservation. Upon its selection into the program, the city was able to obtain much of the funding needed to complete its future Green Pilot Streetscape Project.
“Before now, the town hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. It was a huge undertaking, but an attractive downtown would be a huge asset,” said the Main Street program director.
In 2006, Bostrom was hired as a shared director of the Chamber of Commerce, Fayette County Economic Development, and Main Street West Union.
Then in 2008, the state of Iowa approached West Union with its Iowa Green Streets Pilot Project, which would help West Union become more sustainable and serve as a model for Iowa, as well of the rest of the country.
“The stars just aligned,” said Bostrom.
A Green Pilot
"The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) chose West Union as a Green Pilot Community because of its proven ability to bring the public and private sectors together to enhance the local quality of life,” explained Jeff Geerts, IEDA Special Projects manager.
“When I'm now asked how a town of 2,500 people can take on such a large and important project, I [respond], ‘You need people with a vision who are committed to seeing their community thrive – and a lot of hard work. Those are the people of West Union,’” he added.
Tim Waddell, IEDA Community Development Division administrator, agreed, “It is sometimes difficult to believe that a project of this magnitude was initiated and achieved by a community of 2,500 people, but here it is. I am so proud that the Iowa Economic Development Authority was a partner in working with you, along with the innumerable other partners involved in this Streetscape and District Energy source.
“In the words of Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ Truer words were never spoken when you see what has been accomplished today in West Union!” he stressed.
From uncovering funding sources for the Streetscape Project, to visiting several other communities, to scheduling and facilitating numerous meetings, Bostrom has put an abundant amount of time into helping the City create six beautiful, environmentally friendly blocks downtown.
“This project would not have been the success that it is without the overall great team that was assembled and came together in a multitude of ways to make it happen.”
Bostrom, along with City Administrator Bob Vagts and Jon Biederman of Fehr Graham, have travelled across the nation promoting West Union and the Green Pilot Streetscape Project.
“West Union is becoming known across the nation in a positive way because of this project,” Biederman noted. “I have had the pleasure of providing tours to hundreds of visitors to West Union, as well as presenting the project to many groups around the state.
“The comments I get back from those who see the project firsthand and hear about it are very positive,” he continued. “Everyone wants to know how a community the size of West Union pulled off a project like this and how they can make something like this happen in their community.”
West Union representatives have been to national conferences such as the Smart Growth Conference in Charlotte, N.C., the American Planning Conference in Boston, and the Smart Growth Conference for the Iowa Economic Development Authority in Des Moines.
The local officials helped set up design meetings, a Visioning Committee, and a Citizens Advisory Board; they also met with many local organizations, community groups, and businesses.
While with the Chamber of Commerce, Bostrom also assisted with grant writing. She gathered local research and wrote some of the grant applications; a total of 34 grants were written, seven of which were binder-size and took a month or more to prepare.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of meetings. We had Main Street workshops and visited other Main Street communities,” noted Bostrom.
Biederman points out that the nature of a “pilot” project includes many new and innovative components.
“One will likely not find a pilot project ever that has all components turn out to be a complete success, although the goal is certainly for that to happen,” he explained. “I would be the first to agree that there are pieces of the project that are less successful than others, but that is to be expected, and while they may be less successful, those are not considered negative, either.”
One of the biggest challenges Bostrom faced was making sure the general public was getting the correct information.
“It’s hard for the general public to attend meetings, and we had to put the incorrect rumors to sleep.” she said.
Then during the middle of the process, West Union lost a couple larger employers, recalled the Main Street director.
“People were losing jobs and livelihoods. Your heart was breaking, but we felt we should focus on a reason why we were losing those employers, and that was because of how the downtown looked.”
"Economic development is about creating communities where people want to live, and you have no doubt achieved that in West Union,” stated Debi Durham, IEDA director.
“As I have told people while traveling across the country talking about our community’s Green Pilot Streetscape Project, similar towns of our size have a choice to be aggressive or die,” said City Administrator Bob Vagts. “Seven or eight years ago the City of West Union decided to do something.”
While very proud to have taken part in this major undertaking for downtown West Union, former mayor Dunt admitted, “It has not been without a large amount of negativity throughout the planning process. Also there were some surprises, such as old water and sewer pipes and old windows and doorways under the sidewalks into downtown buildings from many years ago.
“At the same time, I would like to thank everyone for their patience with all the street closings and temporary sidewalks during the construction,” he added. “I think it was worth it, and now we should all be proud of what we have!”
“There was a lot of doubt and questions initially raised by citizens,” Vagts agreed, “but there are already a couple of things in the works which will further benefit the community in the near future.”
“Overall, the Green Street Pilot Project has been the most unique, diverse, challenging, and rewarding project that I have worked on,” said Biederman. “This has been a once-in-a-lifetime project for the city of West Union and a project the city can be very proud of. The recognition the city has received and will continue to receive is more than most of us would have imagined and will prove to be effective in attracting new businesses and residents.”
Teamwork and mutual respect
A mutual respect quickly developed amongst all the chief officials involved in the project’s plans, concepts, and designs during the entire process.
“West Union's downtown revitalization project is an example of what can be done when local, state and federal governmental agencies partner together with communities in an integrated fashion to support community transformation," Geerts said.
“Robin Bostrom is one of the people who cross the path of your life who are truly inspirational,” said Waddell. “Robin never seems to become discouraged, even in the darkest days, and is always there with a smile on her face. Her love of her family and her community is always foremost in her mind, and for her, I believe the line between family and community blur as she sees them as one and the same. It has been my privilege to work with Robin on several projects in West Union, and I look forward to many more.
“This project would never been finished if not for Jon Biederman (of Fehr Graham),” said Vagts. “Not only due to his skills as an engineer, but his grant administration skills helped us immensely.
“I’m sorry, but I even get emotional thinking about it. Some people can bash Jon and Fehr Graham all they want for their involvement in this project, but it has received, and continues to receive, global recognition, and the final product is largely due to the direction provided by each of them. I am extremely happy to call Jon a colleague and even more proud to call him a friend.”
Jason Cooper of Conservation Design Forum echoed the sentiments shared by the current West Union City administrator.
"I especially appreciated having Jon Biederman as a partner for this assignment,” said Cooper. “The project needed a local presence. It needed someone who was firm and thoughtful, and unflappable under pressure. Jon has been that person. The project couldn't have been completed without him."
Biederman’s involvement with the reconstruction of the downtown business district actually began in December 2004. At that time, the Fehr Graham (then TeKippe Engineering) employee provided the City of West Union with its first cost estimate for the project. “This project would not have been the success that it is without the overall great team that was assembled and came together in a multitude of ways to make it happen,” said Biederman. “This includes the design team; Iowa Economic Development Authority staff; funding partners; the contractors who constructed the project; City Public Works Department; current and former City Council, mayor, and city administrator; all of the downtown business owners, who were very patient and understanding during the course of construction; and the citizens of West Union.
“To expand on a couple of these: I have the opportunity to work with a lot of city administration and public works staff around northeast Iowa, and the City of West Union administration, Streets Department, and Utility Department is right at the top as far as knowledge and willingness to assist in whatever needs to be done to make a project successful,” Biederman added. “Also, we were very fortunate to have Blazek Corporation as the general contractor for this project. Their attention to detail and willingness to work with everyone during the course of construction really helped make the project run smoothly.”
Vagts agreed, saying, “How lucky we have been that Gene Blazek and Blazek Corporation was awarded the general contract for this project. They (Blazek employees) are so meticulous in what they do. They truly do incredible work, which is second to none.
“Blazek and the subcontractors such as Wicks Construction, Speicher Excavating, and Reicks Landscapes were all great people to work with. If there was ever something I was wrong about, they flat-out told me and we worked it out,” Vagts admitted. “From the very start, everyone involved with this Pilot Project has had to find ways to work their way through it.”
“West Union's Green Streets Pilot Project has been one of the most important jobs of my career. It has been thrilling to work on such an ambitious assignment these past four years,” said Cooper. “It hasn't always been easy to find the best solution for each design challenge, but I feel fortunate to have been surrounded by so many talented and committed people. I congratulate each one of them on a job well done and wish the people of West Union a bright and happy future.”
“What you have been able to accomplish in your community is no small feat. It took buy-in, planning, investment, and a serious commitment,” Durham praised. “But because you had a vision for the future of what you wanted your community to become, you did it!”
Leading by example
With the grand opening on Thursday, state and local officials will join West Union residents and those of surrounding communities in celebrating the completion of a project, which is still hard for some people to comprehend, but it is truly providing a global vision of the future.
“I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate West Union upon the completion of a project that is an example of sustainability to our state, our nation and our world,” said Waddell.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to, in some small way, be part of what has truly become an inspiration to other communities across the country and across the world. We are proud to be your partner in West Union's sustainable journey!" Durham added.
Locally, Mayor Kent Halverson said, "Like everyone else, I am glad that we are in the final stages of the project. We have a few things that need to be completed, but with the new trees in the downtown area and grass on the courthouse lawn, I think that the project looks great.
“We have new water and sewer lines that needed to be replaced and new and better lighting in the downtown area. All these updates are due to this project,” he reminded his constituents. We now need to look at the Streetscape Project as a positive for our town."
“I am extremely proud that this community has come together. Plans for such a project are just that – plans. But when the final product is realized, it is especially satisfying to see how happy the majority of people really are,” said Vagts.
“The state of Iowa, Midwest, and the entire country will learn from the construction that has just been completed in West Union,” reported Biederman. “Permeable pavement is here and will become even more popular in the future. Personally, I have several permeable pavement projects currently being designed and constructed in northeast Iowa. This is a great tool for storm water management and something we can all look back on in the future as having a start (right here) in West Union.”
“Change is good. This isn’t for us; it is for future generations,” Bostrom closed.