116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WEST UNION — West Union had problems.
Roads in the community of 2,486 people — the seat of Fayette County in northeast Iowa — were deteriorating. A main one, Vine Street, flooded up to car bumpers in heavy rains. Downtown buildings were aging. And resources were limited in the town without proximity to major industry, highway or rail.
But its small stature didn't keep West Union from thinking big when searching for solutions.
'We started talking about a streetscape and what needed to be done. That's how it started,' said Amie Johansen, the deputy clerk. 'We needed to revitalize our town.'
What started as a local street and streetscape project in 2007 bloomed into something much, much greater with the help of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and 17 state and federal grants.
By 2013, six blocks of downtown had been transformed and modernized with clean energy solutions, including a geothermal heating and cooling system for the business district, environmentally sound stormwater management, spruced up storefronts and LED lighting and electric vehicle plug ins for the downtown.
These days, West Union has gained national attention as a model for how a community in rural Iowa can 'go green' and effectively pivot toward the future.
'It was a big undertaking,' said Kent Halverson, who served as mayor from 2011 to 2017. 'We needed new streets and new electrical. In my opinion, everything downtown turned out beautiful.'
In all, West Union tackled $10.2 million worth of work with $7.5 million of it coming from grants. The community was selected as an IEDA green streets pilot project, which was the catalyst to leverage several more grants.
'We hired a grant writer to focus on writing grants,' Johansen said. 'A lot of grants fed off the next grant.'
Paved streets and sidewalks were dug up and replaced by streets of permeable pavers, which allow stormwater to absorb into the ground, while also filtering out toxins, rather than pool.
Some 18,000 square feet of rain gardens, bioswales and planters also were added to help manage stormwater. A small amphitheater plaza was constructed outside the Fayette County Courthouse in the downtown square.
The geothermal heating and cooling network was constructed under the streets for downtown businesses properties. Several of those properties also received a face-lift with help from a facade enhancement program. A downtown housing initiative helped some property owners fashion apartments out of unused upper stories.
According to IEDA, 'the innovative and cost effective green technologies and practices demonstrated in West Union create a unique sense of place and provide the city with a positive advantage in retaining and recruiting businesses to downtown. The lessons learned here can be replicated in many other small communities across the Midwest and the country.'
However, Halverson noted, 'the jury, so to speak, still is out there yet' on how successful the initiative has been.
Five years after the work was done, he and others said they are pleased with the fresh aesthetic. People come to admire their downtown. And flooding issues have subsided.
'It gets people downtown and actually looking, which it didn't in the past,' Shannon Schissel, a lifelong resident and internal auditor at Bank 1st, said while stationed at her bank's tent during a community block party. 'It looks a lot nicer when we have people come to town.'
The bank is connecting to the geothermal system and installing solar panels on the back of its building to power it, she said.
But, it hasn't all worked out exactly as hoped — at least not yet.
For example, the streets are dotted with countless crumbling pavers, and by the time damaged ones are replaced more are broken. Some planters have been overtaken by weeds and have proved hard to keep up despite volunteer efforts. Only about a dozen properties have connected to a geothermal system designed for 60, leading to higher upkeep and administrative costs for those who have joined.
'What can a community do? You can either go up or down. We need to keep adding.'
- Jim Boelman, West Union
And hopes that the upgrades would lead to an economic jolt haven't come to fruition. Retail hasn't replaced office space downtown, although some new stores have opened, including Tindell Shoes, and a new restaurant called Aphea's Pizza Parlor is on the way.
'Changing the streets didn't change the mix of businesses,' said Steve Roach, who runs a small window treatment shop. But, he said, 'It was a pilot project; it was our experiment, and you'll learn a lot from the first time out.'
A 2017 Iowa State University retail sales analysis of West Union shows retail sales revenue is flat, the number of businesses has declined and the community isn't pulling more business from surrounding areas.
Kara Wedemeier, owner of Winers Fine Wines, said she 'loves' the new look downtown. 'It's gorgeous and the people who came from out of town love it,' she said.
She was among those who took advantage of a 50 percent cost-share on facade improvements through Iowa Main Street. She also hooked up to the geothermal system, calling it the right choice ecologically. Cost-wise, she breaks even on geothermal compared with what she used to pay during the summer, but heating is more expensive. She hopes more businesses connect to lower her cost share.
On a Thursday evening earlier this month, about a dozen residents gathered for a community town hall to discuss what's next. There remains mixed reviews on the big street project, but they want to look to the future and how they can make the community better for everyone, said Bob Sadler, president of the West Union Chamber of Commerce and Main Street West Union.
'We are trying to get everyone on the same page,' Sadler said.
Some lamented the lack of community engagement, struggles attracting industry and the lack of natural amenities, such as a river, to attract visitors.
But they also saw opportunity. They discussed how to capitalize on the high school, North Fayette Valley, being located in town rather than in one of the other seven communities in the attendance area. There's a health kick through Wellmark's Health Hometown initiative. And a 40-acre recreation area with softball and baseball diamonds, an aquatic center and an expanding trail system is seen as a community jewel.
Perhaps better road signs could make more people aware of the amenity, some said.
'What can a community do?' asked Jim Boelman, 79, who sells insurance. 'You can either go up or down. We need to keep adding.'
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