Iowa towns capitalize on community assets with creative place-making
In the face of population decline, small towns home in on what makes them special
MAQUOKETA — Rose Frantzen sits on a stool in her Maquoketa studio facing a long canvas. She clenches a handful of different sized brushes in her left hand while using the bristles of the brush in her right hand to finesse the outline of a jaw bone.
Paper towels with smears of paint and empty tubes are crumpled across the floor. At least 50 canvasses in different stages of completion hang or lean in virtually every nook of the repurposed old Methodist church.
Frantzen, 52, is against a deadline to complete a portfolio for an upcoming exhibit called In the Face of Illusion on display from Nov. 24 to Feb. 12 at the Maquoketa Art Experience, a community-driven public space focused on fostering appreciation of the arts.
A small town gallery in a shared space with the Maquoketa Chamber of Commerce is hardly the most prestigious venue for the established artist who’s had exhibits in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and numerous others. But Frantzen had a big hand in building an unlikely but emerging art scene in her Eastern Iowa hometown of 6,000 people — and nurturing it is important to her.
Maquoketa, about 60 miles east of Cedar Rapids, has been struggling for years, like many smaller, mid-sized cities in Iowa.
A series of larger employers have closed or left, leaving scant local job opportunities. People are aging and residents on average are poorer than most in Iowa. The city and county — Jackson — have been slowly shrinking for decades. To compound matters, a devastating fire took out nearly a whole downtown city block in 2008.
“Maquoketa has taken some lumps,” said Bob Osterhaus, 86, a former state representative and businessman who co-founded the Art Experience with Chuck Morris, 55 and Frantzen’s husband.
Rather than fold, residents of Maquoketa did a deep-dive self-analysis a few years ago. What makes the community special? What are its underutilized assets?
“We felt the arts were something we could play off of,” said Frantzen. She helped inspire the artistic spirit within many residents while working on Portraits of Maquoketa, an exhibit of 180 portraits painted over a year. It’s the work that has generated her the most celebrity.
Morris, who is also an artist, has been active and sees value in keeping art alive in small communities rather than losing it to metropolitan areas. Art can inspire and open new channels of thinking, he said.
“It forces doorways open in people’s minds,” Frantzen agreed. “Things are changing, and if we can’t change with it, the community dies.”
Three galleries, including the Art Experience, Old City Hall Gallery — Frantzen’s gallery — and Ohnward Fine Arts Center call Maquoketa home. Early on, the Art Experience had to call artists and recruit them to come and show their work. Now, the gallery has artists calling it and has exhibits booked out for two years, Osterhaus said.
Down a dirt road in the middle of rolling hills and fields, Codfish Hollow Barnstormers hosts touring musical acts in a barn. Fans, who are welcome to pitch a tent on site, travel from across the region to catch national acts catching a break from the rigors of tour.
Maquoketa also has geology that some feel is untapped.
The glaciers skipped this part of Iowa creating what is known as the Driftless Region with dramatic rocky outcropping and caves. One of Iowa’s most popular recreation areas — Maquoketa Caves State Park — is on the outskirts. The Maquoketa River snakes through town and is popular for paddlers, tubers and fishermen.
Emphasizing and marketing those assets the community already has — the arts and outdoors — could help stabilize declines and carve a stronger path forward.
Shawn Biehl, 44, who runs Codfish with his wife, Tiffany, attended school in Maquoketa before heading out West and later returning. He described a depressed area when he was growing up with people out of work, but there’s a new energy and sense of pride now. The community rose up and said it wanted the arts, he said.
“We are just starting to realize what we have as a place,” said Biehl. “There’s a bunch of people around here who want to reinvigorate the community. Maquoketa is becoming a place on the map.”
That’s precisely the idea.
The concept is called “place-making,” in which a community defines its attributes and tries to leverage them to attract new residents and tourism. It is getting wider acceptance as an effective strategy to stave off decline in small towns or start a reinvention that can lead to a better chance of survival, said Matt Harris, administrator of the Iowa Arts Council.
“We are just starting to realize what we have as a place. There’s a bunch of people around here who want to reinvigorate the community. Maquoketa is becoming a place on the map.”
- Shawn Biehl
Co-owner, Codfish Hollow Barnstormers
“People are interested in visiting and living in places where people own their story,” Harris said. “It’s something of a rejection of cookie cutter communities and neighborhoods — the urban sprawl. We are seeing a return to those unique spaces.”
The arts is a common avenue communities lean on to distinguish themselves, and the council works around the state to enhance them. Last year alone, the council distributed $1.3 million in grants to 152 artists in 66 communities across 45 Iowa counties.
“There’s a growing awareness of their unique local assets and what makes them special and different and a recognition those unique assets are key to the future,” said Harris.
Zachary Mannheimer, as principal community planner at McClure Engineers in Clive, focuses on creative place-making. He started the Des Moines Social Club — housed in an old fire station — to help change the narrative in downtown Des Moines, and these days focuses on rural communities.
More than a dozen projects are underway in Iowa, he said. He facilitates discussions to identify community attributes and then helps develop a game plan to capitalize on them.
Many communities point to their small town charm and great neighbors, he said, but that is not what makes a community special and won’t make people want to move there. Instead, it is up to a community to identify and, in some cases, create something that is unique.
“The things that are unique are things created by three levels of people who are pushed out of metro areas due to financial reasons,” Mannheimer said. “Those are artists, entrepreneurs and immigrants. Not ironically, those are the types of people who can make communities unique.”
When place-making works, it spurs reinvestment from the public and private sector in properties. The hope is that buildings in better shape will boost property values, which in turn generates more revenue for the city. It also can lead to new and diverse businesses.
The Art Experience’s Osterhaus, who hosts the exhibition space in a building that was once occupied by four businesses, is doing a six-figure renovation project of the building’s facade. The building is one of the largest downtown, and Osterhaus said he hopes his investment inspires other property owners to spruce up their space. The downtown also is undergoing a $4 million face-lift that includes public art installations.
“I can’t say everyone is on board yet, but we’ve passed a tipping point,” he said. “People see this as a road to the future.”
Larry McDevitt, head of the county conservation board, a Jackson County supervisor and a local stoneworker, has seen Maquoketa evolve from a bustling community and retail hub to a bedroom community for Dubuque and the Quad Cities and even Cedar Rapids.
He is a leader in outdoor initiatives, including directing Jackson County’s share of a $1.9 million state grant from the new Parks to People program, which aims to create better access to parks. Jackson, Dubuque and Jones counties won the grant, but, in winning, had to raise $6.8 million in matching dollars.
One of the outlets is enhancing Prairie Creek Recreation Area, which was donated in 2014 by Robert J. Martin as a place for public enjoyment and recreation. Upgrades include a trail bridge over Prairie Creek, a lodge for events and a new road to access the area.
The recreation area sits on 273 acres with sloping hills, prairie, wooded trails and a creek that can be used for paddling or tubing when the water is high enough. McDevitt said they are planning to build up to six cabins and create 100 RV, tent and hike-in camping sites to help the land be financially self-sustaining.
They will use the prairie as a seed bank. Down the road, the group is planning hiking and equestrian trails as well as a natural preserve.
“We are looking for ways to make things work better,” McDevitt said.
Kevin Kuhlman, 39, last summer opened Maquoketa River Rental out of an old feed store. He carries canoes, tubes, kayaks, standup paddle boards as well as life vests.
Kuhlman, who was also recently elected to the City Council, said he opened the shop because he bought into the concept of Maquoketa embracing the outdoors. He is trying to do his part to bring “tourism and travel” to Maquoketa.
“There’s a lot going on here people don’t know about,” he said. “The community is really trying to bring people here and make this a destination. Put Maquoketa on the map again.”
Take a peek inside Rose Frantzen's studio:
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