People & Places

Keeping Main Street vibrant: Sarah Grunewaldt blends historic preservation, community engagement

Main Street Washington executive director brings businesses together to build a sense of community

Sarah Grunewaldt, CEO of Main Street Washington, photographed on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Sarah Grunewaldt, CEO of Main Street Washington, photographed on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Sarah Grunewaldt grew up in Hudson, Wis., about 15 miles from Minneapolis, Minn. She was part of a high school graduating class of 300 in a school with more than 1,500 students.

“My realm was highways and interstates,” Grunewaldt said. “I learned to get around in cities. That’s how I grew up.”

So she’s as surprised as anyone to find herself as executive director of Main Street Washington, a town of about 7,200 southwest of Iowa City. Surprised, but completely at home.

“This has been a very good fit,” said Grunewaldt. “Washington is a community that has some vision and doesn’t let the fear of change get in the way. It’s been a good business model here.”

With five years at the helm of Main Street Washington, Grunewaldt is one of the most senior directors in the state’s Main Street program. At 31, she’s also one of the program’s youngest.

“I’m in good company,” she said. “When I first started here, there was a very strong core of young professionals who were running our programs. Our YMCA director was younger, as were the directors of our hospital, Chamber of Commerce and library, and our city administrator was a young professional, as well.

“The energy that was in this community when I started was very progressive,” she said.

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Though Grunewaldt was drawn by the community’s architecture and older buildings, economic development wasn’t on her early radar. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American history with a certificate in museum studies and landed a job as a curatorial assistant at a museum in the Twin Cities.

“I hated it,” she said. “Working in the museum was nice, but my job was basically all data entry. I wanted something more.”

That “something more” came in the form of a graduate degree in historic preservation from Boston University.

“I’ve always loved old buildings. I absolutely love architecture,” she said. “We did a lot of hands-on work with older buildings during my graduate studies — it was a really fun time to be in school.”

“On a whim,” she said, she applied for the director’s job for Main Street Washington.

“This position is involved in historic preservation. It’s keeping these old buildings relevant,” she said. “So I figured I’d give it a go.”

She walked out of her interview with a job offer and, she said, she hasn’t looked back.

Grunewaldt said she sees her job as one of a community liaison, bringing businesses together to support one another and build the community up. What her job isn’t, she said, is a micromanager responsible for making sure each place follows a specific business plan.

“I will never tell a business how to do the job,” she said. “I want to learn from them how they run their businesses. I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything — I will always look for the expert to get the right answers.”

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Grunewaldt said she’s proud of the work she’s done in Washington and is looking toward the future for more business and economic development ventures. In her first five years in Washington, she’s helped secure two $75,000 Main Street Iowa Challenge Grants for local businesses — one in 2014 to renovate Dodici Night Suites, four rentable rooms/apartments above Café Dodici, and one in 2017 for Frontier Restaurant, a new restaurant still under development.

In addition to working to have Washington seen as a destination community, she’s working to bring business owners and leaders together to promote the importance of buying local.

“Back in the ‘way back machine,’ the retailers would get together in the mornings for coffee and conversation — they were really all friends and would talk about things that were going on and what they were planning to do with different events,” Grunewaldt said. “Somehow that has faded out, and I wish we could bring it back. Right now, we meet quarterly — we gather all the business owners and let them just talk about what’s working, what isn’t. That kind of communication is really vital to a community’s survival.

“I think the No. 1 thing we’re all afraid of is the big box stores, and we are all afraid of the internet, and what those will do to local business,” she said. “But the internet doesn’t know you, doesn’t talk to you, the internet doesn’t know your name, what brands you like. With local businesses, you’re getting someone whose kids go to school with yours.

“That has been a big hurdle: reminding people why the local businesses exist,” she said. “We need to remind people that shopping within our community is important.”

 

Focusing on economic development

Ask Grunewaldt what she’d like most from her peers along the Corridor and she’s quick with an answer.

“I’d like to see some acknowledgment from the northern Corridor that Washington exists, that we’re part of the Corridor, too,” she said.

Getting that acknowledgment would show outsiders what its residents already know: Washington really is a destination.

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“We have retail, we have restaurants, we have what people are looking for,” Grunewaldt said. “At the same time, we have all of the things our residents need to live here.”

Grunewaldt has been director of Washington’s Main Street program for five years. In that time she’s helped two businesses obtain $75,000 Challenge grants and has seen the downtown’s vacancy rate for residents drop to just 2 percent.

That, she said, is a good start. She has goals and ideas for the future of Washington, a county seat community of about 7,200 people.

“I’d love to see the streetscape and the square extend,” Grunewaldt said. “I’d love to see the continued development of vacant spaces, have the retail base expand, get more restaurants. The more the merrier — density breeds opportunity.”

It’s not easy. Grunewaldt didn’t come to Washington with an economic development background, but through Main Street Iowa she and other directors across the state get quarterly training to help their communities succeed.

Main Street Iowa works with more than 50 communities across the state that are “committed to exceptionally high standards for downtown economic development,” according to the organization’s website, iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/MainStreetIowa.

“Main Street is a community volunteer program,” Grunewaldt said. “We’re a nonprofit, we rely on the community to pitch in and help itself.”

That means making sure the community knows what Main Street Washington is doing. And, Grunewaldt said, it’s doing well.

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“When I started my job we had seen $3.5 million invested in the buildings downtown,” she said. “Since I got here, we’ve had a little more than $9 million invested. People are improving their buildings, they’re taking care of their employees. They’re saying they’re here for the long-term.”

“Running a nonprofit is difficult,” she says. “But I have a really great core of retail and business leaders throughout the community, and we work together. At the end of the day, I’m able to say, ‘I’m working on it, you’re going to have to trust me,’” Grunewaldt said, “and they do.”

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