Conrad is a rural, agricultural town in central Iowa with a population of 1,108. Known for its rich black soil, Conrad is nicknamed “The Black Dirt Capital of the World.” A recent facade improvement program, however, has visitors and residents exclaiming over Conrad’s Main Street improvements as well.
Conrad has always had a fairly vibrant downtown with very few building vacancies. But according to Darla Ubben, program director the Conrad Chamber-Main Street, the town’s one-block Main Street was starting to look a little shabby, including the highly visible rear facades of several buildings.
So three years ago, Conrad Chamber-Main Street, with help from Main Street Iowa, began the intensive process of applying for a $500,000 federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to carry out a facade improvement program for its Main Street.
To get started, Conrad Chamber-Main Street asked business owners for a letter of interest indicating their willingness to participate in the project. It was a great deal for business owners: they would be required to pay only 10 percent of the rehabilitation costs in exchange for donating a seven-year preservation easement to the Conrad Chamber-Main Street. The city council and the mayor were excited about the grant and announced that the city would contribute 30 percent of the total project costs. The remaining 60 percent of the cost for the facade improvements would come from the CDBG grant. A big deal for a small town!
With commitments from business owners and the city, Conrad Chamber-Main Street’s pre-application for the CDBG grant was approved. The city then hired a grant administrator to complete the final application for the project. Conrad was awarded the funds for the project in spring 2012.
Conrad Chamber-Main Street staff then hired an architect and general contractor to carry out the work. Having one architect and one general contractor working on the entire block provided significant cost savings as well as ensured consistency in the renovations.
All building improvements had to be approved by the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office. Several green building aspects were incorporated into the renovations; they used energy-efficient materials and recycled construction debris as much as possible.
Ubben explains that Conrad building owners and residents were very excited about the project. “Onlookers would come out in droves to see the first phase of improvements,” she says. "When new framing went up, they would get excited about the restored facade and the windows and awnings. They would pull me aside and say things like, 'I remember when I was a little girl and this building was a grocery store. It looks just like that.' Every building was a new story, more interested people would ask what was going on, and the town has been buzzing ever since!”
Ubben also says that this process taught her the importance of communication. She says, “I was downtown as much as possible to oversee things and talk to owners face to face about their building. I tried to do updates also via email and was in constant contact with the architect and general contractor.”
The project is nearing completion, and for small town like Conrad, the scope of work is huge: 22 storefront and 4 rear facade improvements. Not bad for a town of just over 1,000 residents. Ubben says that they were fortunate that the bids came on the low end; therefore they were able to make their dollars stretch further than originally anticipated.
Conrad is planning a big party at the end of June to celebrate its newly spruced up Main Street. It was worth all the hard work according to Ubben. She says, “No matter the time frame, the headaches along the way, the ups and downs that go along with every project, and all the paperwork, this downtown facade project definitely is worth the work. I truly believe this is the biggest thing that has ever come to Conrad, Iowa!”