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City Notes: An outside perspective

By Mark Wicks, Community Development Director

Charles City had some visitors in early May who shared some interesting insights in a recent report delivered to the Community Revitalization board of directors.

That report, presented by the director of the Greater Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, involved the observations and comments of 10 Hampton residents – nine females and one male, ages 18-64.

They were taking part in a Main Street District Exchange program organized by Main Street Iowa. Both Hampton and Charles City are part of Main Street Iowa with Community Revitalization here and a joint Chamber-Main Street organization in Hampton.

City Notes: An outside perspective
Mark Wicks
Charles City Community Development Director

The goals of the district exchange were to provide unbiased insight from a visitor’s perspective of the community overall and the downtown district in particular; offer constructive feedback regarding customer service and appearances; see if the district has focused on Main Street aesthetics; engage community leaders in a different way; and encourage discussion on the findings.

The hope is that the report will inspire each community to determine three to five concrete implementation steps to take moving forward to improve what it has to offer.

I was in Hampton in August to deliver the findings from 10 Charles City residents who visited that community to their Chamber/Main Street Board, so now it was our turn to listen and learn.

Keep in mind this is a small sample size with only 10 people, but very interesting nonetheless to get some outside perspectives looking at our town. All too often we only see things from our own point of view and don’t consider the view from the outside looking in.

The visitors were asked to score things on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being “excellent” and 1 “poor.” Some of the highlights from the report, which is available in its entirety from our office upon request, include:

• Overall first impression of downtown district – 3.6 out of 5.
• Signage scored below average – 2.8 (“needs updating and cleaned up.”)
• District was pedestrian friendly – 4 out of 5.
• Visitor information was easy to find – 3.2 out of 5.
• Variety of goods and services – 3.9 out of 5.
• Cross-promotion by businesses – 3.8 out of 5.
• Overall friendliness and customer service experience – 4.9 out of 5.

The riverfront area and whitewater park made a positive impression on many of the visitors, as did the parks in town. Several noted how well-kept they all were.

They also liked the vintage streetlamps, “unique” movie theater, the Arts Center, river walk, artwork, banners, plantings and the overall “friendliness” of the community. Comments also included “excellent lunch at The Pub” and “We love the restaurants on the waterfront.”

On the business side of things, they commented on “a good variety of stores” in the downtown district, citing the “unique shops, good coffee, a brewery, pub and electronics store.”

The wine tasting at The Unique Country Store was a hit, as was the “very vibrant and colorful” Rustic Corner.
“Everyone was super friendly, greeted us at the door, gave recommendations for lunch. They were really helpful,” the report stated. “Businesses recommended and supported each other. Great customer interaction for us. Your merchants seem to have pride in the town and shops.”

The visitors found parking ample and convenient. Business signage in the district could be better, as they found some of the business names hard to read from the sidewalk and suggested the use of blade signs to improve that.

Another comment was “I wish restaurants and stores were closer together.”

Asked what type of business or service they felt was missing in the district, the visitors responded: gift store, clothing store, shoe store, restaurants, hardware store, bakery, flower shop and pharmacy.

Other observations and comments included:
• Thought it was a smaller community. Pleasantly larger and bustling
• Pleasant welcoming, wayfinding for hospital, library and downtown
• Many things are in walkable distance downtown.
• Did not know about the whitewater course … interesting.
• District felt safe
• Several vacant buildings not well maintained.
• Space between businesses looked too empty.
• Not a lot of people moving around … not vibrant.
• Large feather flag in front of Arts Center was welcoming and inviting.
• It was a nice place to visit but seemed to be missing something “new.”
• Overall this community was very well kept.

Asked what issues they thought were in need of immediate attention in the district, “the large vacant building on the corner” (McQuillen Place) was the most mentioned item. Filling the empty storefronts was another.

Suggestions regarding the need for wayfinding signage are actually being addressed as we speak.

Finally, the visitors were asked what intrigued them to make them want to come back? Their responses included the river area, nice shops, The Pub and specialty shops, upcoming events listed on website, the beauty of the community, downtown events in the park and just the fact that Charles City was “friendly and treated (us) well.”

The Community Revitalization Board and committees are reviewing the full report to see what can be addressed and how. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses – there are things we can do better – but all in all it didn’t appear too bad from the outside looking in.

“You should be proud of your town, there is much to see and do,” the report summary concluded. “Keep it up!”