I’ve been really busy preparing the City’s Request For Qualifications (RFQ) for downtown redevelopment so please forgive the slowdown in blog posts this past week. More on the RFQ will follow but in the meantime I ran across a good story about the revival of Burlington, Iowa and I wanted to share it. I’ve had a few people comment on the blog that I shouldn’t post success stories from bigger or wealthier cities because they don’t apply to Kent but I have to say it sure seems like Burlington’s size and challenges were very similar (they even had an old hotel) to Kent so I think they offer some good lessons for us. Actually, I was pleased to see that we’re doing a lot of the same things Burlington did to get things rolling.
Traditional Main Street commercial corridors, where a variety of daily needs are close at hand, are a hallmark of smart growth in small and large towns alike. These corridors were originally designed with a mix of shops, restaurants, offices, and housing, allowing people to walk, take transit, ride their bikes, or drive to reach their destinations. As the movement toward more auto-oriented, regional retail centers grew, many of these commercial corridors suffered. However, towns and cities are seeing the value in having a strong and vibrant Main Street. Revitalization of these areas is reaffirming community identity and delivering investment, jobs, and tourism dollars.
Over the past 20 years, Burlington, Iowa has reestablished its downtown as the city’s primary activity center. Since the Main Street program began in 1986, the central business district has attracted scores of new businesses and 500 new jobs. The private sector has invested $33 million in downtown projects, including the restoration of 396 historic buildings.
Burlington’s progress has drawn national acclaim. In 2004, Burlington earned the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Great American Main Street Award, an honor given to five communities each year for excellence in preservation-based revitalization.
Burlington in Context
Founded in 1833, Burlington (pop: 26,839) was once a prosperous transportation and manufacturing hub. Its location on the Mississippi River and major railroad routes made the city a ‘Gateway to the West,’ rivaling St Louis during the nineteenth century. Burlington maintained a healthy economy into the twentieth century, but faltered after World War II. Downtown businesses could not compete with suburban shopping centers, and highway construction led to the demolition of nearly one hundred businesses and historic homes. Attempts at urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, including a pedestrian mall on Jefferson Street, were ineffective. By the 1980s, many downtown facades were covered by aluminum siding; storefront vacancy rates exceeded 80 percent.
Downtown Partners, Inc.
The Iowa Department of Economic Development and the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated downtown Burlington as a National Main Street Community in 1986. The Main Street program, adopted in communities across the country, is designed to gradually – over 10 to 20 years, for instance – bring economic development and community activity back to downtown.
Downtown Partners, Inc. (DPI), a non-profit organization, operates the Main Street program in Burlington. It promotes the downtown as a place to do business and hold events; provides design, regulatory and networking services for existing businesses; markets downtown properties; and recruits new businesses.
DPI is a small organization, operating with several staff, strong volunteer participation, and a $200,000 annual budget. It is funded in part by a 32-block municipal improvement district established by the city. Property owners within the district contribute three dollars per one $1,000 of taxable valuation. In return, DPI advocates for downtown investment, provides training and resources, and organizes events that bring customers to local businesses.
The Main Street Program has facilitated significant changes during its 20 years in operation. The private sector has invested $33 million in downtown since 1986, including $29 million toward rehabilitation projects. The city’s property tax revenue has increased 33.9 percent, with much of the increase generated from properties previously vacant, abandoned or otherwise off the tax rolls. Two hundred and twelve business starts, relocations, or expansions and 500 new jobs have come to downtown.
The city and DPI have collaborated on a number of physical improvements over the years, creating a more business and people-friendly environment downtown. The pedestrian mall was removed in favor of upgraded street features, including sidewalk renovations, historic light post installation and on-street parking in front of merchant entryways.
Rehabilitation of historic buildings has been a key driver for revitalization, accounting for 87 percent of all private investment going into downtown. Historic landmarks have become new businesses, residential spaces, and retail and restaurant locations.
Built in 1911, Hotel Burlington was once among the Midwest’s top hotels. The hotel was closed by the time the Main Street program arrived in the 1980s. Supported by $1.2 million in funds from the city’s tax increment financing program, the ten-story structure has been restored as a residential development, including 75 units of mixed-income housing for older residents. Prior to redevelopment, the city collected $7,480 (1998) in property taxes on the hotel property. After redevelopment, the tax collection jumped to $115,296 (2003).
RiverPark Place is a mixed-use development in a former hospital building overlooking the riverfront. The structure, completed in 2003 with the help of a $1 million Chamber of Commerce grant, houses local businesses, condominiums, and an upscale restaurant. RiverPark generated approximately $60,000 to $65,000 in property tax revenues during its years as a hospital building. With the new project online, the city estimates that it will collect between $80,000 and $90,000 each year.
Schramm’s Corner is located in the historic Schramm’s Department Store, the former retail anchor of downtown Burlington; the company closed in 1997. The building is now a $2 million mixed-use development that contains retail establishments, upscale condominiums and apartments, and Burlington’s business incubation center. In 1998, the city collected $4,494 in taxes from the three properties at Jefferson and Second Street. Redeveloped as Schramm’s Corner, the properties account for $16,792 (2003) in annual property taxes.
Special Events and Attractions
A regular series of special events has helped bring people downtown and encouraged support for local businesses. DPI promotes a spring open house in March, customer appreciation days in April, sidewalk sales in July, extended opening hours in the fall, Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, and a holiday open house in November. The Riverfront Farmers Market takes place on the waterfront on Thursday evenings in summer, and draws up to 1,500 customers on its busiest nights.
The Annual Living Windows event, in which retailers open up their storefront window space for local non-profits, families, or other businesses to decorate, draws visitors from all over southeast Iowa each December. Permanent attractions, such as the historic Snake Alley, bring in additional retail and tourism dollars. Snake Alley is a winding stretch of North Sixth Street, marketed as ‘the most crookedest street in the world.’ It is one of Burlington’s most famous landmarks.
With the Main Street program as a guiding force, downtown Burlington has steadily turned around. Its historic features, pedestrian-scale and community gathering places have made downtown an attractive location for business. New projects are returning old buildings to productive use, while returning thousands of dollars to the tax rolls.