Back to the future
By ANDREW MCGINN
In last week’s front page story on $2.3 million in upgrades slated for the Jefferson Municipal Airport, Jim Forbes, a local chiropractor and chairman of the Jefferson Airport Commission, seemed to sum up the feeling as of late in Greene County.
“This place is going to blossom,” he said. “The feeling is just there.”
Jefferson, as many people have observed, indeed feels like it’s on the cusp of a renaissance.
This week, we’re introducing a new monthly feature in The Jefferson Herald called “Ideas People” to spotlight those very individuals who are working to move Greene County forward.
They’re business owners, entrepreneurs or artists — or all three at once.
They’re champions of what Greene County was, and what it can be.
Today we chat with Alan Robinson, the affable (and often hilarious in regular conversation) program director of Jefferson Matters: Main Street, an organization working to breathe new life into the Square in part through historic preservation.
Robinson grew up in Grand Junction, graduating in 1973 from East Greene, but left, like so many others, for a number of years.
Now he’s back, leading a local organization that some people still think is actually the name of a new bank.
Q: First off, what brought you back to Greene County? How did you come to get involved with Jefferson Matters: Main Street?
A: I came back to Greene County, most of all, because it has always been “home.”
I have deep roots here in the Raccoon Valley, dating from the mid-1850s in the Panora area. I left Iowa in 1985 in the midst of the farm crisis. I had been working in the public relations and development area of Buena Vista University (then College) and took a similar position in a small college in North Carolina.
I was pretty close to the beaches of Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, and then went back into the newspaper business in North Myrtle Beach and Pawleys Island, which were right on Grand Strand of South Carolina.
That was great for a while but I missed living in a land of four seasons.
Plus, I had always had the idea of moving to New York to pursue a career in magazine publishing — my major at Drake. So I did it.
It was a big move, but I have family in that area as my mom was a Brooklyn native. I had a good life there, but I always kept track of what was going on back in Iowa — especially Greene County.
So, eventually, one thing led to another, and I moved back to Iowa — and to Greene County — in April 2011.
I should point out that I’m a third-generation Greene County “boomerang” returnee. My grandma was born in Panora and grew up in rural Rippey, but moved with her family to the Great Plains in 1900. She moved back here (Grand Junction) as a young wife and mother 20 years later.
My dad left Grand Junction to serve in the Navy during World War II but moved back at the end of the war to settle down and raise family.
And now I’ve left for the East Coast and returned in about the same time frame of being gone as my grandma.
I attended one of the first public meetings in Jefferson that first summer back and they were discussing the overall plan to apply to become a Main Street community. Part of that discussion included hiring a program director at some point down the line, and I was thinking, “Hmm, that might be interesting.” I was doing some freelance writing at that time but was looking for something a bit more steady.
Q: What makes the Greene County of today different than the one you recall growing up?
A: I grew up during those years of post-World War II comfort and posterity.
We had many advantages. We had only 200 students in high school at East Greene in the early 1970s, but the entire building was dedicated as a 9-12 high school. Just a dozen years before, it had been a K-12 school and in later years it became a 6-12 building.
We had all the extras, even though we were a “small, rural high school,” including three years of art, a full range of music and theater activities, and all levels of curriculum for college prep.
All the towns had main streets with viable businesses.
Obviously, after the farm crisis of the ’80s and two economic downturns in the first decade of this century, the situation is different.
Yet there are still many advantages to life in Greene County. We have a solid foundation, we just need to build on that. I see a lot of focus on the future. We have a lot of forward-thinking leadership here.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Jefferson Matters: Main Street. Jefferson has been designated a Main Street Iowa community for a year now, correct?
A: Jefferson was going through that application process, and I knew they would get it just by the fact that well over 200 people showed up to express their interest at that first big meeting.
The official application process started in late 2011 and into early 2012. Once the announcement was made that Jefferson was a Main Street community, the board started moving forward in putting the organization together. The hiring process started in mid-summer and I came on board Sept. 2, 2012.
Q: In the first year of being a Main Street Iowa community, have you felt any ripples of change through the community?
A: Yes, the whole Main Street process is based on the community working together to build a vibrant downtown.
That entails making the businesses more successful, filling up empty storefronts, rehabbing buildings. One of the phrases Main Street Iowa officials use is the “buy-in.” We’re really seeing that now as the program has been put together and is moving forward.
Frankly, it’s a lot to absorb. So we’ve found that although the community was very engaged with becoming a Main Street community, we need to do more educating and communicating about “what happens next.”
Now it’s all about successfully implementing the Four Points of the program — Organization, Design, Promotion and Business Improvement.
Q: When the program started locally, was there a fear that Jefferson’s downtown (or “uptown,” as we all call it) might go the way of many other rural Iowa, and even Greene County, downtowns?
A: There was some fear about that because there are quite a few empty buildings right now.
Some key visionaries saw that changing the facades of what are verifiable historic buildings to functional, but not very attractive materials, was clearly a step in the wrong direction.
Now, we are meeting with building owners and talking about making improvements that are structurally sound, energy efficient and aesthetically pleasing while being historically accurate.
Q: There seems to be a lot of excitement, and Main Street has clearly adopted the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” awareness campaign (hence your organization’s name). How will you keep the momentum going in the years to come?
A: This Place Matters helps people reach to a core, so to speak. It’s very direct and declarative. It reaches into the heart of a community.
If people ask “Why are you doing this,” it’s easy to answer, “This place matters.” And if they ask, “Why a Main Street program here?” Because “Jefferson matters.”
There is great pride in Jefferson, and there’s an astute awareness that good things don’t happen on their own. It takes dedicated, caring citizens and volunteers. We have them in abundance in Jefferson.
I’m greatly inspired by the board and committee members I work with here.
Q: What are some of the projects already undertaken by Jefferson Matters: Main Street?
A: We completely rehabbed our office building on Lincoln Way with financial support from local groups and the Greene County Community Foundation, and a lot of volunteer labor.
Rich and Reagan Osborne were instrumental in helping get Jefferson Matters: Main Street launched, and their rehab of the Greene Bean Coffee building is what the program represents — a preserved building enhancing its historic design features with an awesome business inside.
They are continuing the rehab process on the other half of their building — new home of The Jefferson Bee & Herald — and are making plans for some terrific “upper story development,” a term we use in Main Street to define the unused second-story portions of our historic downtown buildings.
Our promotion and design committees are spearheading the historical plaques project on our new brick lampposts downtown.
The Tower View Team is making real headway in making people aware of our downtown assets by showcasing the possibilities of art and promotion.
They are moving forward on a “rooftop art project” to enhance the experience of visitors to the Mahanany Tower.
They are making great progress on their Sally’s Alley project, which will be an amazing mix of art and public space. Look for a debut of the bird photo banners and other improvements to the alley space in late May or early June.
We also put together a really nice tree lighting ceremony in the courthouse rotunda with a focus on getting people into our downtown businesses in early December.
Q: How is the organization funded?
A: We have financial support from the city of Jefferson and Greene County, but the majority of our support comes from contributions from individuals and businesses in Jefferson.
Q: When can we expect to see and read the historical plaques on the new lampposts around the Square?
A: We have determined the size and style of our plaques, which will be designed and built by Sloan Momument Co. here in Jefferson.
Our next step is to review the nominations. Forms and guidelines are available on our website, jeffersonmatters.org, and at Home State Bank, Peoples Trust and Savings Bank, the Jefferson library and the Chamber office.
Our goal is to have eight plaques completed and installed by the start of summer. These eight will be the double posts at the entry way to each alley on the four sides of the Square.
Q: Could you give us a sneak peek of who or what might be getting a historical plaque? Has it been hard to winnow down the nominations?
A: I can’t say yet, the nominations are still coming in. The more challenging part was putting together the guidelines.
Plus, these are historical plaques, so we are working with more than 150-plus years of Jefferson and Greene County history.
And our first phase — around the business side of the Square — will focus on Jefferson history.
Q: Speaking of history, your office is located in that little gray building behind the Hy-Vee drugstore. What was that building originally? I’ve heard it was a hamburger stand at one point.
A: Yes, it was first called the White Star when built as a small restaurant in the mid-1920s to serve travelers on the newly paved Lincoln Highway that passed through Jefferson on today’s Lincoln Way, which was originally named Main Street.
It was known for most of its early years as the 5-Spot, as it sold five-cent hamburgers. A lot of folks around here in their 80s remember the 5-Spot from when they were kids in the 1930s.
Q: In regards to historic preservation, many of us remember the present-day site of All Ability Cycles as being the, ahem, Last Draw Saloon, then later slated for demolition. Now look at it.
That would appear to be a huge win for local preservationists. Is that what you’d like to see more of around the Square?
A: Yes, this is another textbook case for how to preserve a building. The building’s owners incorporated the use of historic tax credits in preserving and rehabbing this wonderful piece of Jefferson history.
Then to add a business like All Ability Bicycles was icing on the cake.
And the upper-story development was a real addition to the downtown area also.
That building had been a tavern for so many years, I don’t think very many people had any idea it was one of Jefferson’s first movie theaters, the Lincoln Theatre, or that it was built during that early automobile era that marks so much of the architecture on the south and east sides of the Square (1913-1920).
Q: Are local business owners wary of restoring their buildings like that for fear of cost? How do you convince merchants that historic preservation can be their friend?
A: Well, I think anytime something new comes along, there is always an acclimation period.
In the case of downtown historic rehabilitation, it’s a matter of shifting the focus from “cost” to “investment.” And really, that’s what it is.
Within our Main Street district we have a National Register of Historic Places district, so any proposed renovation planned by these buildings will automatically move through a first-phase of a three-phase process working with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHIPO) for qualifying and receiving both state and national historic tax credits.
An improved building generates more rental income, in addition to improving its resale value. Like I said, it’s an investment.
Q: What do you envision the Square looking like in 10 years?
A: I see a very vibrant downtown with the type of businesses that will generate traffic from both local residents and from out-of-town visitors — many who will come here to shop specifically in downtown Jefferson.
There will be no empty storefronts.
Cars will be parked on all four sides of the Square well into the evening hours, with increased pedestrian traffic to the Square and all around it.
I see more restaurants — especially a successful business-class restaurant or two — but I also see more boutique-type shops serving niche markets like gourmet foods and trendy women’s clothing.
Other new thriving businesses would be a microbrewery and other artisan-based businesses like glass blowing or chocolate making. I also see a downtown building being converted to an art gallery.
Q: What’s the one thing you miss about New York being back in Greene County?
A: I miss being in a pedestrian-centric environment. Everything I needed was within three blocks — food stores, drug stores, banks, church, and both Central Park, which is awesome, and Riverside Park along the Hudson River and an extension they built to the south for some 12 blocks, Riverside Park South.
This was a reclaimed and rehabbed area — from industrial rail yards to upscale, high-rise condos.
The park was developed along with the buildings — 20 stories or more in height — but they retained some of the railroad infrastructure in the new park’s design, which always reminded me of growing up in Grand Junction and Greene County, and its significant railroad heritage.