WATERLOO — Take a walk around downtown Waterloo today, and you’d likely find a lot more to interest you than you would have just a decade ago.
Historic buildings on both sides of the Cedar River have been saved from the wrecking ball and redeveloped into thriving storefronts, restaurants, bars and loft apartments. Other spaces have been turned into more or less public spaces for the community, like the RiverLoop Amphitheatre, Expo Plaza and dek hockey rink.
Perhaps no downtown project more exemplifies the initial resistance, community support and ultimately successful revitalization better than SingleSpeed Brewing Co., which transformed the old Hostess bakery on Commercial Street.
While the multi-million-dollar historic and LEED-certified renovation of a former industrial bakery into a 500-capacity brewpub and beer distributor seems a foregone conclusion now that it’s been thriving for more than a year, it wasn’t always that way.
“You have to think about how much of a battle it was,” said Jeff Kurtz, the executive director of Main Street Waterloo from 2010 until 2015. “I think a lot of people forget that a lot of the city leaders had a bull’s-eye on that building: They wanted to tear it down. They wanted to make it a parking lot.”
Kurtz, the Main Street Waterloo board and a community-supported Friends of Wonder Bread activist group saw the building as a good candidate for reuse.
John Molseed, a former Courier reporter who began volunteering with Main Street in 2012 and is now president of its board of directors, said Main Street worked to convince SingleSpeed owner Dave Morgan to locate his planned distribution center there, then educated the community and Waterloo City Council on the benefits of saving the building.
“One of the top things in the last decade would be this Wonder Bread project,” Molseed said, noting it succeeded because it had grassroots community support. “It shows what a repurposed historic building can do, it shows its potential, and I don’t think it’s something city leaders thought of at the time.”
It’s still a battle Main Street Waterloo wages with city leaders and some community members: saving historic buildings instead of tearing them down. But it’s gotten a bit easier as projects like SingleSpeed, as well as the Walton block, the dilapidated John Deere manufacturing buildings and the Fourth Street Bridge walkway, prove to be successful.
“We live in a throwaway time,” said Tavis Hall, who was Main Street’s executive director from 2015 until 2017 and is now executive director of the Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s hard to realize we can look at something old and see it with a new purpose.”
But he sees a shift in that mindset nonetheless — Hall points to antique event Funky Junkaloo and pop-up thrift shop Epic Finds as two examples of how people in this area are valuing old and historic items.
“Nobody looks at Jameson’s now and says, ‘They should have torn that down,’ or goes into SingleSpeed and thinks it should have been a parking lot,” he said. “It takes people with vision to step up and be part of the process, instead of sitting back and complaining that things are being destroyed in front of our eyes.”
Hall points to the fact that he can walk into Basal Pizza and grab his favorite pizza, and remember when his senior photos were developed in that same storefront years ago at Walden Photo.
“Everywhere we look there continues to be progress, and in every story of progress it dips its toe into historic preservation,” he said.