City opens downtown conversation fields numerous concerns
If Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porsch wanted input about the future of the downtown area, he received plenty.
About 20 people attended the first of two informal meetings focusing on downtown, held at city hall Monday night. Those attending, including many of the downtown business owners and landlords, aired concerns, stressing practical matters like lights, parking and snow removal.
Mayor Porsch said he feels his role is to listen to the public.
A visit by the Iowa Department of Economic Development indirectly spurred the meetings. As a storm water model community for the state, Storm Lake was offered an opportunity for a free “secret shopper” study by the department. A team of three - a Nashville business consultant, a former chamber of commerce director from an Iowa community and the Main Street program director from Spencer, came to Storm Lake April 30, touring downtown and visiting the stores, posing as shoppers, grading the retail community on the shopping experience, how they were greeted and other factors.
They gave the downtown all better than average marks, but suggested some changes, including the need for a long-term planning initiative, beautification, and better communication between the city and downtown. The public meetings are a first effort toward resolving the latter issue.
Downtown property owners expressed several frustrations.
One said that a comprehensive plan was completed years ago, but that none of the plans have been realized for the downtown area.
Several people spoke out about streetlights, one calling the existing units “horrid,” and others saying there is a patchwork of three or four different types. Other communities have used lights with hanging flower baskets to beautify business districts, they said.
Signage is poor, they add. City officials agreed, noting that the visitors found one store with no sign and no hours on it to indicate what it is. Signs to help visitors find their way downtown are also lacking.
Members of the crowd said that curbs have been knocked to pieces during snow removal, in the business district and around the courthouse. “I have to pay for the sidewalk that belongs to the city, I don’t want to have to pay for their curbs,” one person said. In one case, chunks of broken off curb were thrown in a planter in front of a store.
Those flower planters were also subject to lengthy discussion. Some of those attending said some have not seen flowers for years, others have been marred by beer bottles and cigarette butts. One suggested that it’s not fair to make business owners responsible for the flower beds, and another suggested evening out the cost by having all the businesses pitch in, not just the nearest shop. “It’s not mine, it’s everyone’s,” one man said. Still others felt that someone with landscaping design knowledge should be employed to do all the planters in matching fashion.
If it is such a problem, maybe the city should remove the planters, one man suggested.
It was noted that there are no bike racks, and few benches for people to use downtown, and some said they had been told they couldn’t add seating by liability-fearing previous city leaders. One said past leaders told him he would need to pay $400 for insurance for two whiskey barrel flower planters in front of his property.
Porsch implied that current city leaders may be more interested in beautification. He said the city is beautiful along the lakefront, but from the railroad tracks on north, “it’s just buildings.”
Several of the downtown businesspeople were upset over snow removal that they felt was worse than previous winters. In fact, if the visitors had come two weeks earlier for their assessment, they would have struggled to get to the stores because snow was left piled down the center of the street.
One business owner said shoppers got stuck pulling into the spaces because snow hadn’t been properly cleared, one with the bottom of their car bodywork torn off. She said that when she called to complain when the snow from the street was piled on the sides after one storm, blocking access to the store, a city employee asked who put the snow there. “You did,” she said. Another time when she called about snow not being removed, she said she was told by city hall that they were “waiting for it to melt.”
Another person asked how the city justifies cleaning the sidewalk north to Walmart, when it won’t clear sidewalks downtown. City officials noted that the north paving is considered a trail, with funding to construct it requiring the city to maintain it. Asked if the city would take on clearing the downtown walks, they were told that only a finite amount of funds are available from Road Use Tax, just over $1 million per year. Downtown walks are mostly cleared by contractors who move the snow into the street. It’s a problem when this is done after the city plows clear the streets at about 2 a.m.
Porsch pushed for coordination between the contractors, the businesses and the city snow crews to improve the situation.
Parking was another concern, as some of the businesses say that there are not enough spaces available for their customers. In some cases, business owners and employees take all the spaces in front of their shops, “cutting their own throats,” as one put it.
More downtown second-story spaces have been turned into apartments, taking up more spaces. One landlord said she likes to limit her tenants to one car using Lake Avenue spaces per unit. Another said he requires tenants to park off Lake Avenue as part of the lease agreement.
However, one said that only two lots are allowed for overnight parking during snow situations, leaving tenants with small children or carrying groceries to walk for blocks to get to their homes.
One person suggested changing the downtown from four traffic lanes to two, that he said would allow for additional parking down the center. City officials said that master plan for the downtown area would address such things as traffic, but that it will take a few more years to save up funding for the process. The audience did not seem thrilled to put off attention for more years.
Littering issues also bothered the property owners.
They asked if an occasional no-parking night could be proclaimed for Lake Avenue so sidewalks could be swept down and the city street sweeper run through to clean the curbside. City officials felt this could be done. One person said a building had been torn down adjacent to the Erie Street alley, a short distance from city hall, and rubble has been left for two years. City officials promised to look into it.
Porsch said that one public suggestion has been to create a new program with a theme, such as “Storm Lake Proud.” Every block, business and residential, would have one member of a committee, and would be responsible for seeing that the block is kept clean.
“It is small steps, but you have to start somewhere,” he said. “I agree with everything I’m hearing - we have to get downtown cleaned up, and get the residences cleaned up.”
He noted that the process will take time. “The city is not going to be able to do everything, it’s going to have to be a partnership.”
The Iowa Department of Economic Development will make a more detailed report on its Storm Lake visit, and city officials said they will post all the information for the public to be able to access.