Elkader, Iowa

Iowa | 2001 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 4/2/2001

Since its founding in 1846, Elkader, Iowa, has been the county seat and a trade center for Clayton County. Even with a population of only 1,510, it maintained its reputation as a state leader in per-capita retail sales. The farming crisis of the 1980s, along with the emergence of discount stores in neighboring cities, challenged local leaders to maintain a viable business community. One by one small stores closed, leaving the community with only one grocery store. A large hotel, once the flagship of downtown, closed, and there was talk of a new motel on the edge of town. A restaurant and tavern in the heart of downtown closed and became an eyesore.

Around the same time as the farm crisis, the Iowa Department of Transportation finished the Highway 13 bypass that would take some 4,200 vehicles daily around the city instead of through the business district. Further challenges arose for the business community when the Turkey River flooded, damaging buildings along Main Street.

The mayor brought residents together for a pep rally in the form of a New Orleans-style funeral, complete with Dixieland band, to celebrate the death of despair and the birth of hope. From then on, community leaders and concerned citizens worked to bring life back to downtown. The revitalization begin in 1991 with the formation of the Main Street program, with technical support from Main Street Iowa and the National Trust Main Street Center. The Chamber of Commerce, the Elkader Development Corporation and the city welcomed the new organization with open arms. The groups developed new mission statements to create harmony in the joint effort.

To address the ailing building stock, design proposals were generated for every building in the district, and one by one the original facades reappeared. Three buildings facing the wrecking ball were saved by a local contractor who invested more than $250,000 by creating a restaurant with outdoor seating along the Turkey River.

Volunteers from the Elkader Development Corporation raised more than $65,000, built river walks along both sides of the Turkey River, and installed lighting on the historic Keystone Bridge. Residents donated $100,000 and approved bonds for another $300,000 towards a new library, created from three vacant buildings downtown.

Now, before Main Street Elkader's 10th anniversary, 77 buildings have been rehabilitated or restored; 99 percent of downtown buildings are occupied; and 83 new jobs have been created. Real estate values have climbed 32 percent and private investment in rehabilitation and property acquisition has totaled more than $2.1 million. Retail sales have increased 38 percent and 17,838 volunteer hours have been logged since Main Street Elkader began its revitalization effort.

Life has returned to Elkader, and it is once again the per capita leader in Iowa's retail sales.