Revitalizing Iowa’s Antique City

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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A rural Iowa town strategically played up its strengths to become a destination for antique lovers from across the nation and beyond.

In the 1980s, Walnut, Iowa began building a niche industry with one major antique auction, a couple of antique shops and some strong community advocates.

By 1985, Governor Terry Branstad had designated Walnut “Iowa’s Antique City.” Fodor’s later named it one of the 10 best antiquing towns in the U.S.

Since then, residents and business owners in the town of fewer than 800 people have been striving to live up to the name. The charming town 40 miles east of Omaha recently embarked upon a major renovation project to upgrade storefronts and streets of Walnut’s historic downtown area.

The $1.09 million project was funded with a $400,000 Iowa West Foundation grant, a $300,000 Iowa Economic Development Authority revitalization grant and $335,000 in local option sales tax dollars from the City of Walnut. Business owners also contributed funds for the ambitious project, which includes upgrades to store facades and streetscape improvements.

Sixteen storefronts have been refreshed with tuckpointing and paint. Some received new windows and awnings too. Uneven bricks from the main street have been pulled up and leveled. New curbs, gutters and sidewalks have been installed. Streetlights have been enhanced — as has handicapped accessibility.

“It’s really exciting to see some of the downtown improvements — five new business have relocated there since the project started, “says Terri Abel, Walnut city clerk. “It’s breathing some new excitement into downtown.”

Lori Holste, director of Western Iowa Development Association (WIDA), says community pride has contributed to the town’s revitalization. WIDA is one of Advance Southwest Iowa Corporation’s economic development partners. The nonprofit promotes business development and expansion in Pottawattamie County.

WIDA enlisted some of Walnut’s leaders to participate in a hometown competitiveness course a few years back. The class emphasized four key pillars for strong rural communities: youth engagement, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and leadership.

Holste says city council members took its lessons to heart and are doing everything they can to ensure their town continues to thrive well into the future.

In terms of youth engagement, WIDA conducted a youth survey to determine whether young people were interested in staying in Walnut after graduating from high school. “What we found is that kids really wanted to stay,” says Holste. “But they had been told for years they wouldn’t be able to find work here.”

This perception that the community lacks opportunity has been slowly changing as new entrepreneurs — many of them young people — are creating their own unique businesses in the small town.

Since Walnut can’t survive solely on antique sales, particularly in the off-season, new shops have opened selling items such as clothing, repurposed furniture, guns and baked goods.

Shelley Grav chose to open Plum Crazy, a home décor store, in Walnut based on the town’s old fashioned charm. “I walked into the community and felt like I had just stepped back in time where things were more relaxed, life was simpler,” says Grav. “I loved what was happening in the community — the look and feel that they were going after.”

WIDA has helped many of the new ventures, offering planning advice, helping problem solve and assisting them in finding resources. Stores with a diverse range of products that appeal to visitors and locals alike are finding success.

“People have been accepting of new ideas,” Holste says. “The locals are back downtown and shopping, which is a good trend. We hope to keep things going to further the downtown redevelopment. The community is invested in giving the town a new spark.”


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