A Glimpse into 2017 for Downtown Iowa City

By February 6, 2017About

Iowa City Press-Citizen –

Having weathered a challenging construction schedule on Washington Street in 2016, it’s nice to have the year in the rearview mirror and some exciting endeavors to look forward to in 2017. First, we’ll be able to enjoy the fresh new streetscape of Washington Street. You will no longer experience walking over unstable vault doors, tripping hazards in cracked sidewalks or confusing back-in parking. The wide sidewalks allow breathing room for leisurely strolls, peering in shops and downtown’s signature cafes.

Washington Street leads the way in the first of several new phases of critical updates downtown that will ensure that the city’s commercial core is up to 21st century standards in fiber optics and supporting the needs of the digital age. We’re thankful for the City’s investment in these projects to keep Iowa City attractive to newcomers and visitors and supportive of growing local enterprise. The Iowa City Downtown District remains an involved stakeholder in the streetscape plan updates for the pedestrian mall this year and encourages community members to ask your city representative how you too can get involved. We need to continue to prioritize the ped mall infrastructure updates for 2018 and sustain this unique attraction that is the heartbeat of Iowa City. In the meantime, take the time to enjoy and appreciate Washington Street’s smooth sidewalks, vibrant retail setting and a few added parking spaces to boot.

This year you might consider enjoying these strolls … at night. After several years of working closely with and servicing downtown businesses that primarily serve the daytime hours, our board members felt it was time to start giving meaningful support to those who make downtown Iowa City the fun it is at night. The ICDD’s 2016 Strategic Plan identifies a new “Nighttime Initiative” as a priority investment for the ICDD in 2017 and 2018. The commercial core is experiencing significant demand from millennials, University of Iowa faculty, young professionals and retirees to live, work and experience the downtown not just during the day, but after hours as well. On the heels of the opening of the world-class UI Voxman School of Music and other private developments and new calls for progressive social and health reforms, the time is right to improve the perception and reality of downtown’s nighttime economy and lead it in a proactive versus reactive way. To do so, we need to look to new, untried models.

The ICDD is fortunate to have a strong partner in the University of Iowa to help guide us on our way to a healthier, more welcoming environment. Tom Rocklin, vice president of Student Life; Tonya Villhauer, coordinator of the Partnership for Alcohol Safety; and Georgina Dodge, UI’s chief diversity officer, have been genuine supporters of opening the dialog related to the challenging issues of alcohol safety, diversity and inclusivity in downtown and on campus. Student dynamos such as ICDD liaison Jacob Simpson of UI student government have also been paramount in these conversations.

This dialogue helped lead to a new program conducted this January called the Iowa City Better Bridges Institute, directed by Brianna Marcelo that served to educate businesses and nonprofit entities about identity, bias and strategies to have inclusive customer service. Myself and 25 other participating downtown and Chamber of Commerce businesses and partners went through a day and a half of training designed to embrace diversity as a means to foster new ideas, innovation and (ultimately) a welcoming environment that leads to better businesses. I will tell you from first-hand experience, you can’t leave a session like this and think of your neighbor, your friend, your partner or your customer in the same light. This kind of education, if wholly embraced, can move mountains.

Adding a staff with this kind of diversity training to support downtown’s evolving night economy could be a welcome change to how we tackle community friction points related to noise, excessive drinking and altercations while doubling as the downtown’s concierge. One such model worthy of review is the international concept of a “Nighttime Mayor.”  This model establishes an authority tasked with managing a vibrant and safe night economy and celebrating it as a means to attract a creative workforce. Similar to what a director or mayor does for a community during the day, a nighttime mayor is tasked to manage the night — or the evening hours that comes with special challenges and opportunities for that time of day. Such a position could improve relations between night businesses, the university and the city while working toward a vibrant, inclusive and truly creative night economy that hosts conferences, pop-ups and a variety of programming in the street.

2017 will also bring the authentic events that the community has grown to love as well as a few new programs and initiatives. Tickets go on sale next week for the coveted Top Chef Downtown, which occurs Feb. 27 at hotelVetro. Stay tuned for all the new events and happenings from the ICDD at downtowniowacity.com.

Nancy Bird is executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District. 

Iowa City Press-Citizen, 01/27/2017

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