The year was 1987. Main Street in downtown Cedar Falls was, by all accounts, a dreary place with few businesses able to stay open. The city was considering demolishing one side of the 100 block, a street of historic but lifeless buildings, to create a parking lot.
Now, 25 years later, Main Street in Cedar Falls is once again a bustling place.
Busy shops and restaurants stand proudly where the parking lot was once proposed. Cedar Falls Main Street survived in part because of a group called Community Main Street, an organization that has been actively working to revive downtown ever since the parking lot proposal.
"When there was talk of razing a whole block, people banded together," Community Main Street Executive Director Carol Lilly said of the non-profit's founding. This year the organization is celebrating 25 years in Cedar Falls.
Cedar Falls Main Street - and districts like it, whether they be on an actual Main Street or just in a historic, central neighborhood - often are nostalgic for a town's citizens. The Oster Regent Theatre building, originally opened as the Cotton Theatre in 1910, for example, holds fond memories for older community members. When places like Main Street, once centers of town life, are struggling, some communities fight to save them.
"It just provides a sense of place for our community," Lilly said.
Cedar Falls is not alone in its effort to save Main Street.
The National Trust Main Street Center reports it has helped more than 2,200 communities rebuild their downtowns in the last 31 years, and the movement has spurred $49 billion in reinvestment in traditional commercial districts. Cedar Falls is one of 45 communities that are part of Main Street Iowa.
What memories do you have of Main Street? How have you seen it change? Tell us in the comments.
Dying Main Streets Were Once Vibrant
Liane Nichols, a retired teacher and volunteer artistic coordinator with Cedar Falls Community Theatre, remembers the downtown of 1987 as a very different place than it is now.
"Downtown Cedar Falls had become just kind of a bleak place to be," she said. "Most of the 200 block were just office buildings. The hotel (the Blackhawk Hotel) had pretty much just turned into a place where people on low incomes lived as they could afford it. It wasn't a place that many people came to stay."
She herself grew up in that hotel, which she said her parents ran when she was a child in the 1930s and '40s.
"I lived in the hotel until I was 12," she said. "I grew up going to the movies (at what is now the Oster Regent Theatre) many nights. I just had a wonderful time down there, so I'm glad I get to play on Main Street again."
She said at the time she was growing up, Main Street was vibrant.
"There were a couple of dime stores, several dress shops, a couple of dry good shops downtown, a couple of grocery stores, a bakery and a butcher shop," she said. "There were stores that came and went."
She said the stores began to shut down in the 1970s when College Square Mall opened.
"That began a big decline downtown," she said. "And so it’s just wonderful all the very special shops that are offered down there now."
Today, in a reversal of that trend, many Main Streets seem to be growing stronger as malls decline.
"... I'm glad I get to play on Main Street again."
Main Street Groups Claim Positive Economic Impact:
Community Main Street is primarily financed via a designation as a Self Supporting Municipal Improvement District (SSMID), which means some local property taxes are funneled to the organization, giving the group a yearly starting budget of approximately $150,000. Much of the group's programming is possible thanks to private sponsorships, grant money and fundraisers.
In return for that money, Community Main Street reports that over the last 25 years downtown has seen a net gain of 523 new jobs and 642 buildings rehabilitated or renovated. A building can be listed as "renovated" several times, as various changes are made to it. The group reports $20,408,970 private dollars invested in building rehabilitation and $19,777,634 private dollars invested in downtown property acquisition in the same period.
The National Trust Main Street reports that across the country, participating districts have generated more than $48.8 billion in new investment, with 206,600 in building rehabilitations and a net gain of more than 391,050 new jobs and 87,850 new businesses. The groups says every dollar a community uses to support its local Main Street program results in an average of $25 in new investment.
"The economic impact our downtown district has had has been a positive impact on the community," Lilly said.
Theater Group and Community Main Street Worked Together to Revive Downtown
Nichols was one of the original Cedar Falls Community Theatre board members when the group was given ownership of the Oster Regent Theatre, then called the Regent Theatre, in 1990.
The theatre group had a campaign to raise $1.25 million to restore the building, she said, and the still fledgling Community Main Street was a key partner.
"Our campaign rested on the idea that having the theater there would be a wonderful gateway to the community on Main Street," she said. "It would bring economic growth, and it would also be cultural and historical. We did it with a lot of consultation and help along the way from Community Main Street."
The theater renovations were completed in 1994. Lilly said the rebirth of the building was one of the first successes in the quest to rejuvenate downtown.
"After that it just kind of carried on down the rest of the district," she said.
In 1987, Community Main Street was selected to join Main Street Iowa, which formed the year before as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The association with Main Street Iowa brings grant money, organizational help and recognition, such as the Great American Main Street Award, which Cedar Falls won in 2002, and designation as a Distinctive Destination in 2010. Both awards were given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Four Areas of Focus to Revitalize a Neighborhood
Community Main Street has four areas of focus modeled on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's platform: business improvement, organization and development, design and promotions. Community Main Street is in charge of all aesthetic aspects of downtown, from flowers planters, street signs and the holiday light display to helping businesses with facade improvement grants.
The group also organizes celebrations such as Holiday Hoopla, which brought thousands downtown in December, as well as regular vendor promotional events like an upcoming Jan. 21 indoor sidewalk sale.
Lilly said the group also does things like market analysis surveys to determine what businesses might be viable downtown and organizing workshops for business owners. For example, in February, she said, Google is coming to conduct a seminar on increasing the web presence of small local businesses.
The district officially stretches from the Cedar River to the 600 block and from Franklin Street to State Street.
She said none of what has been accomplished downtown would have been possible without the community's support.
"We're a volunteer-driven organization," Lilly said.
Indeed, the group reports 54,538 hours of volunteer time donated since 1987.
So what can residents expect from the next 25 years? Lilly said developing State Street, continued improvement of the second stories of downtown buildings and capitalizing more on the district's proximity to the river are all possibilities.
"It's just been a continual effort of making it a place people want to be, making it a heart of the community, one business at a time," Lilly said.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Cedar Falls Community Theatre got possession of the Oster Regent Theatre building in 1977. The group was formed in 1977, but got possesion of the building in 1990 and started performing there in 1994. Patch regrets the error. Updated at 12:33 p.m. Jan. 19.