Transforming Downtown Winterset

February 13, 2018
Architecture Restoration

Communities are searching for ways to improve their local economies, enhance their quality of life and revitalize their neighborhoods while still preserving their own cultural and natural heritage.

Historic preservation and heritage tourism are two prominent economic and community development strategies to accomplish these objectives. The City of Winterset is one of those communities.

Early in 2017 Winterset applied for and became a Downtown Revitalization Fund – Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) recipient! These funds will be used to implement a building façade improvement project that impacts 18 different historic buildings surrounding the courthouse square, located in what is called the Winterset Square Historic District.

RDG Planning & Design assisted early in the process and worked together with the City of Winterset on their grant application. We focused on planning improvements to include work ranging from new signage and awnings to intensive re-pointing and storefront reconstruction. This rehabilitation project achieves many of the community’s economic and quality of life objectives, plus enjoys significant community support.  The town is positively buzzing with anticipation to see the work begin and watch changes to their downtown buildings. Construction is scheduled to start in May of 2018.

Q1: What is a Community Development Block Grant?

The grant (CDBG) is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered by the Iowa Economic Development Authority.  The application process is competitive and must originate with the city.  They, as the recipient and primary driver of the application process, then select an architect, work with building owners to gauge interest, and work through the rigorous requirements required by this grant.

Q2: How does this process work?

 The application phase requires a high level of local coordination among the city, building owners, other community stakeholders, the grant administrator, and the architect. The architect assists in helping the community understand the Slum & Blight Survey, and how it affects building owners and proposes design options or scope of work with an estimated cost. Since the purpose of Downtown Revitalization is to erase slums and blight, the grant application demonstrates how this will be accomplished, and reviewed by the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA). When working with a historic downtown such as Winterset, where most of the buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the architect is challenged with respecting the historic designs of the buildings while being able to repair or reconstruct missing historic elements, such as storefronts. This work is also reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office. The Final grant application must be completed and submitted in the spring, and recipients are announced that summer. More about the Downtown Fund.

Q3: What are some tips for a successful application?

 This is a competitive grant for limited funds, so it’s important to have a strong team assembled. The state will be gauging local community interest, commitment, and participation; a well-organized approach will demonstrate these. The grant will only pay for part of the total project costs. The city and individual building owners will be expected to make a financial contribution to the project. An experienced grant administrator who is familiar with the details of the program and the submittal process serves as a guide for the city. The project must demonstrate a powerful and positive impact on mitigating slum and blight while using funds wisely. The architect’s services must be procured through a competitive selection process, so selection should be based on experience with historic buildings and a solid knowledge of the grant application process.

Q4: What comes after a successful CDBG grant application?

The architect’s main role starts after the grant is awarded and the design work can commence.  The architect begins with intensive site visits to understand the true needs of each individual building.  Once that is complete, hold a town meeting to explain the grant, its parameters, and the process for design, documentation and eventual construction. The architects meet individually with all the building owners over the next few months to define the needs and wants for each building and façade, balancing these with the slum & blight priorities, while respecting the historic design of each building.

These types of revitalization projects are transformative for communities.  The excitement connected to the buildings that are participating in the rehabilitation is contagious, and often owners of adjacent properties that were once skeptical of the program are seen sprucing up their buildings.  The enthusiasm is enjoyable for all involved – and not involved – with the project.  New businesses pop up, visitors drive into town to check out the progress, and vacant buildings find new owners.  All these happenings continue to provide more evidence that downtown revitalization projects are some of Iowa’s most economically sustainable initiatives.

Stay tuned as, Winterset’s downtown transformation is about to begin, scheduled to complete construction in the summer of 2019, in time for the annual Madison County Covered Bridge Festival.

Written by Scotney Fenton, Architect