~ THIS PLACE MATTERS, a column about Jefferson, IA

A column about Jefferson, Iowa
by Colleen O’Brien Clopton
#1, July 7, 2011 Herald

If you have seen signs around town that say THIS PLACE MATTERS, it is no mystery; it is evidence of Jeffersonians picking their spots and advertising to all that this place we call Jefferson, J-Town, Jeff, Jeppernutz and home does indeed matter.

The signs are part of a grassroots movement to revitalize downtown Jefferson both in the rehabilitation of its historic buildings and in its economy – the businesses that can and will inhabit the 50-some beautiful old structures in downtown Jefferson.

The push to rehab this place that matters involves four integrated plans:

  1. Jefferson’s downtown is already designated as a State Historic District, and our bid to be a National Historic district is in the works.
  2. A large group of volunteers is beginning the application process to become a part of Main Street Iowa, which guides small towns in reviving their commercial districts from years of decline. Forty-five Iowa towns are already using Main Street help.
  3. Starting this fall, the city will begin reconstruction on the sidewalks around the courthouse. Next year all sidewalks fronting the businesses around the square will be redesigned and rebuilt.
  4. In a photo series in the Bee and Herald, THIS PLACE MATTERS will be a visual reminisce about a place that indeed matters, individually and collectively.

This latter is a campaign from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to inspire people to champion places that hold memories, inspiration and importance in their lives. This is our chance to champion Jefferson, to volunteer and work on a project worthy of the town and its history, of each of us and our histories.

~ THIS PLACE MATTERS, a column by Colleen O’Brien

By Colleen O’Brien
For the Herald, July 14, 2011

The Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again meant many things – that you can’t return to your home town and see it the same, that you can’t return to your youth, your idealism, your original place of coming of age.

But to me, returning to Jefferson to live defied his statement in many ways.

In 2001, after forty years away, my husband and I came back to town and bought a house.

And something happened to us. There was an eeriness and magic to the landscape as we strolled the residential streets each summer evening. It made us say, “Yes, we can come home again.”

It was all so familiar, from the houses and yards we’d played in to the cracks in the sidewalks we’d rollerskated on. It was only the downtown that dismayed us. There wasn’t a place on the square that did not trigger a memory, although often the buildings resembled nothing of what we had known.

We graduated in 1962 and hit the road, for college, for the Navy, for points west – the lure of California. We left behind the businesses and busyness we’d known all our lives and returned four decades later to a ghostlike mirage around the square – “Well, at least Ben Franklin’s is still there. And Figenshaw’s.”

We listed the restaurants we had known – Cleta’s, Gilmore’s, Shoppe’s, the Maid Rite; and the drugstores – Potter’s, Shuey’s, Lyon’s/Tucker’s, where I was a soda jerk all through high school. No more, Sandy’s Pool Hall or popcorn stand; no more, Snyder’s music store or Lyon’s photography; no more, Baller’s hardware and Coast to Coast.

We stood on the northwest corner of the square where Seela’s Hardware had been, and Jim told me again how he and Bobby Boyle helped Ted Seela sew the first trampoline bed in the upstairs room so they could go on the road to area schools to demonstrate bouncing and backflips on this amazing piece of equipment.

Jim talked about Oppenhiemer and Durlam’s men’s clothiers, where he had first learned about OTCs (“over-the-calf” dress socks) from Loren Durlam; and I talked about Downe’s, one of the women’s dress shops on the west side, where I bought my first Bobbie Brookes blouse on lay-away after I started earning money (sophisticated beyond my wildest dreams).

We had dozens of stories about Louie’s candy kitchen and ice cream parlor. We loved Louie’s as teenagers because it was the place to hang out and be cool, or pretend to be. Louie Tronchetti catered to the businessmen of the square and their teenagers, and it was a happenin’ place, where we spied on the upperclassmen and their girlfriends as we sat in the very back booths with a giant cinnamon roll and a coke, all for 15 cents.

The memories were interspersed with “What can be done to make it like it was?” Or if not that, to make it better than it was now. We understood the reasons for the dying of Jefferson – better roads and freeways that fed a natural wanderlust of Americans, the modern Merle Hay Mall in the big city of Des Moines, going to drive-in movies elsewhere instead of to the Iowa Theater in town; and then the farm crisis of the ‘80s, when for every six farmers who left their farms, one business in town closed its doors.

But still, we lamented a once busy place now neglected. Literally leaning on hard times, many of the hundred-year-old brick buildings downtown were on the verge of collapse.

Although we talked the talk, we never went further. Like many old coots, we mourned for “the good old days” but did nothing.

But now, there is a chance, and I am excited to participate, to be completely behind the effort to restore our old buildings and because of that to see old and new businesses flourish around the square.

The photos we are taking for THIS PLACE MATTERS are a way to remind us why we love Jefferson, and how we can quit mourning the loss or ignoring the problem and start fighting for our town.

With enough support from us who champion our pretty little burgh, we might be able to gain the status of a Main Street USA town. If we have enough public commitment and enthusiasm for our application to be accepted, we will get help in the form of advice and counsel, experience and know-how from other fallen towns that have “come home again.”

Please come to the Main Street community meeting on Thursday, July 26, at Sierra Theater, 6-8 p.m. to understand and help the effort to revitalize Jefferson’s downtown. For more information: info@jeffersonmatters.com and watch for details in the Jefferson Herald. We look forward to seeing you.

Jefferson Matters: Steering Committee to Update Community

A public meeting will be held Thursday, July 28th in Jefferson’s historic Sierra Theater to highlight the key findings of the Main Street Steering Committee that was formed last fall.  On September 28th, a sizable crowd attended an informational meeting to learn what it takes to become a Main Street community.  Such a designation would qualify the community of Jefferson, after a lengthy application process, to receive direct services, training and technical assistance from the Iowa Department of Economic Development. Forty-five Iowa communities have already earned that honor.

Over the past nine months, this Steering Committee has explored the benefits and challenges of becoming a Main Street community. They gathered information by visiting current programs at Greenfield, Osceola, and Story City.  Each of these communities used the structure of the Main Street program
to determine the priorities and projects needed for the revitalization of their
own town.  Representatives from the committee were further inspired through their attendance at the 2011 National Main Streets Conference which convened in Des Moines in May.   It was here that the phrase “This Place Matters” grabbed their attention and imagination.  It has since gained a groundswell of support as residents of Jefferson and Greene County share what local places
“matter” to them.

Through their thorough discovery process, committee members learned that Main Street’s proven method is rooted in historic preservation that goes well beyond simply saving buildings. Volunteerism, along with local private and public partnerships, has helped to revitalize the commercial and cultural centers of each of these towns.

At the July 28 meeting, committee chair Tom Polking and committee members will share their findings and showcase one town’s successful Main Street experience. A highlight of the evening will be a surprise appearance from an elderly statesman with close ties to the Jefferson community. Residents from throughout the county are invited to attend this public meeting at the Sierra Theatre at 204 East State Street in Jefferson on Thursday, July 28 at 6 p.m. For more information, please call the Greene County Chamber and Development office at 515-386-2155.


Jefferson Matters: Benefits of Becoming a Main Street Community

A public meeting slated for  Thursday, July 28th, will summarize the findings of a Main Street Steering  Committee formed last fall.  The committee is charged with investigating the Main Street approach and determining the possibility for its success in Jefferson. Information was gathered through on-site tours of three Iowa Main Street communities and by attending workshops  at the 2011 National Main Streets Conference convened this year in Des Moines. The benefits of the Main Street program were found to be substantial.

Iowa’s town squares and Main Streets are traditionally the hubs of commerce and culture within each community, and many, like Jefferson, are struggling today.  Over the past 25 years, towns across the state and the nation have discovered the benefits of becoming a Main Street community.

According to the Iowa Department of Economic Development website, “In the first three years of a Main Street program, the state of Iowa invests approximately $100,000 in on-site visits, training, and technical assistance.  Main Street Iowa, the National Main Street Center and private consultants spend over 40 days in each new community and provide over 30 days of training for local volunteers and program directors during this start-up phase.  Following the initial program start-up, the state invests tens of thousands of dollars annually in training and technical assistance to designated communities.”

The proven four point Main Street approach is locally driven and builds upon the unique assets of a community, from cultural or architectural heritage to entrepreneurship and community pride.  Four local committees work together and with existing organizations to build a sustainable and complete revitalization effort.  The committees help to promote and find investors, and then connect them with interested building owners and renters. They work closely with existing businesses to provide training and services as requested, helping them to respond to current market trends or plan for retirement and resale.  Volunteer opportunities are many and varied, as consultants to share professional business expertise, help organize a local festival or clean up a gaping store front for new occupancy.  Well-documented results of this concerted effort include renewed community pride, improved city centers and historic neighborhood commercial districts, and a significantly enhanced
job and business climate.

A recent issue of The Iowan magazine highlights the inspiring stories of five Main Street Iowa towns.  Complimentary copies will be made available to the first 100 participants at the July 28th public meeting.  It is evident from these stories that the accomplishments of the Main Street Approach depend on long-term dedication and cooperation, but that they reap many ongoing rewards.

Because the advantages are so great, the application process is rigorous and only a fraction of applying communities are awarded the coveted Main Street designation.  A key component to the success of any application is the demonstrated commitment and enthusiasm throughout the business and residential communities.

Show your interest and have your questions answered at the public meeting scheduled for 6 pm on Thursday, July 28, at the Sierra Theatre in Jefferson.