Iowa’s Main Streets: Serving up Small Business Success

Main Street Iowa - logo 25th anniversaryMain Street Iowa is celebrating 25 years of Main Street revitalization, and it is turning out to be a banner year. More than a thousand community leaders, elected officials, and federal and state agencies from across the nation will be gathering in Des Moines this spring for the 2011 National Main Streets Conference, (May 22-25) to share best practices and explore new opportunities, challenges, and trends in downtown revitalization.

First-time visitors to Des Moines and the state might be surprised by what they discover inside the convention center and out. Iowa is more open-minded and forward-thinking than many would expect from a largely rural, heterogeneous state in the middle of the country. But from the state government’s cutting-edge sustainability program to its diverse business owners and stores to its law permitting same-sex marriage, Iowa is full of surprises.

IA.Biz cover 2009 Best of IssueMuch of Iowa’s innovation and diversity can be found in its Main Streets, prompting the Iowa Association of Business and Industry to select Main Street Iowa as one of the state’s best programs in fostering “Community Revolution.”  As such it will be profiled in IA.biz, Iowa’s only statewide business magazine, in its Best of 2010 issue, which will hit newsstands in late March 2011. The Community Revolution category, one of eight, recognizes Iowa communities that have banded together to reclaim the charm and function of their main streets and historic resources, creating a favorable business climate and sparking a new spirit of community.

“What a great honor.” says Thom Guzman, Director at the Iowa Downtown Resource Center and formerly state coordinator with Main Street Iowa. “Of course, credit goes to the commitment and dedication demonstrated daily by the hundreds of volunteer leaders in our Main Street communities. Maybe, finally, economic development organizations are realizing that Main Street Means Business!”

To give you a flavor of Iowa’s Main Street communities, and a taste of how progressive small town living can be, meet Frederique Boudouani, the proprietor of a restaurant-cum-cultural-center in Elkader, Iowa. His story shows there’s more to Iowa than cornfields and magical baseball diamonds—and has been for a long time. 

The tale of how Schera’s Restaurant and Bar came to be in Elkader, population 1,465, is as amazing as its couscous. The story actually begins in Boston on Sept. 11, 2001, when the world of an Algerian-born, MIT-trained computer engineer came crashing down along with the World Trade Towers. As it did for most Americans, the terror attacks left Boudouani with many unsettling questions, which as a Muslim-American were amplified a thousand-fold—namely, why? This led him to research the history of Islam in the U.S. He was astonished to discover that the first mosque built in the U.S. is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and that rural Elkader was actually named after Abd al-Qadir, the “George Washington of Algeria”—the only town in the U.S. to hold that distinction. Three Americans, who were neither of Arab nor Muslim background, founded the town in 1846 to honor the Algerian national who resisted French colonial occupation in the mid-1800s.

Discovering Elkader’s history gave shape to Boudouani’s desire to improve understanding and communication between the two cultures. It turns out connecting to the Iowa town was strangely easy. His partner Brian Bruening is from a town only an hour away from Elkader. The two traveled to the community several times from Boston and fell in love with the place.

 It is easy to see why. The Main Street program came to Elkader in 1991 and helped channel a citizen-led effort that has turned the downtown into an inviting, attractive, and dynamic place to live, work, and do business. The Main Street program has helped restore the district’s original commercial buildings, create a public library from three vacant buildings, and install a river walk along the Turkey River, which connects downtown and Mascara Park—a city park that is named for its sister city in Algeria and has a Peace Pole bearing messages in English, French, and Arabic.

Despite its size, Elkader supports a first-run movie theater and a restored opera house and leads the state in per capita retail sales. Other attractions include canoeing, fishing, hiking, and historic sites like the 1889 Keystone Bridge—the longest arched span west of the Mississippi River—and the restored Bayless Hotel, which offers three floors of consignment crafts and furnishings. The town’s revitalization successes were rewarded in 2001 when it won a Great American Main Street Award.

Boudouani, who had never lived in a city with fewer than 2 million people, was hooked. He and his partner decided to relocate to Elkader from Boston, a thousand miles away. As his doctoral degree from MIT in computer engineering and Bruening’s master’s in creative writing did not seem to be of much use, the idea for Schera’s was born.

Named for Boudouani’s sister and a character in One Thousand and One Nights, Schera’s opened in November 2006.  Located on the banks of the Turkey River in downtown Elkader, the eclectic restaurant serves a mix of Algerian, North African, and Mediterranean cuisines—along with American favorites like cheeseburgers. From its first day, Shera’s gave Elkader  a place to enjoy delicious food and has since evolved into a gathering spot where people can learn about the Arab and Muslim world in a friendly, welcoming environment.

Longtime resident Donald Harstad puts it this way, “If anybody has any questions, [Boudaouani] is able to talk about anything, even the French in Algeria. He is very well informed and will give you as much of a history lesson as you can take that day.”

For Boudouani, the rewards are simple, and many. “In all honesty, it warms my heart to see someone who is raised in Elkader and has been a farmer his whole life, come in, order couscous, love it, and come back again and again.”

Iowans have proved their loyalty to Boudouani in more ways than returning to his restaurant. When the floods of 2008 hit, the riverfront restaurant was badly damaged. Suffering about $250,000 in damage, Shera’s was closed for several months. The flood brought out the best in his fellow Iowans. Boudouani and Bruening received help with the clean-up from neighbors and strangers alike–some traveling all the way from Des Moines. Others wrote checks to help the owners re-open the restaurant. said, “The outpouring of support was just amazing,” says Boudouani. “I still get choked up about it.”

Boudouani’s contributions to Elkader go far beyond a tasty exotic meal and interesting conversation. He took charge of the town’s sister-city relationship with Mascara, Algeria, the birthplace of Abd al-Qadir, a connection that then-Mayor Ed Olson formalized in 1984. Boudouani lends his hospitality and translation services to the delegations from Algeria and other Arab nations, which have been very warmly received. Boudouani also has plans to cook up a computer business, Elkader Technologies, which will include a business incubator to help the town become a center for hi-tech employment. But creating jobs and stimulating economic development for Iowa is only one side of the equation. In the building that will eventually house the incubator Boudouani hopes to open the Algerian-American Center for Global Peace and Understanding. You can be sure who will do their catering.

So if you find yourself in Iowa, particularly this spring as part of the National Main Streets Conference, make the effort to visit Elkader. It is only about three hours from Des Moines, but it will awaken your palette to delicious cuisine—and open your eyes to another world.