WATERLOO — Call Rodney Lewis a downtown Waterloo convert.
When he decided to move Rodney’s Kitchen to a storefront with inside seating, he just happened to find the perfect place on Sycamore Street, he said.
But since seeing his business boom there, he’s encouraged other entrepreneurs to locate downtown as well. He says he helped convince business owners of Boujee Berries, Five Seasons Hair and Beard Studio and The Spot to join him on Sycamore Street, building a destination block of sorts.
“I like the way that Main Street Waterloo is always involved with different businesses around here, always getting us involved in different activities,” Lewis said. “I love it.”
When Jessica Rucker took over as Main Street Waterloo’s executive director last spring, she found herself in the middle of the city’s downtown renaissance, she said.
“We already had a lot of great momentum going on downtown, and I was able to step in and continue what was going on,” Rucker said.
Depending on how you classify Waterloo’s downtown district, between 23 and 32 new businesses have opened just in 2018. And there’s more to come in 2019, from new construction like the Art Block to rehabilitation of existing structures like the Masonic Temple.
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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 in recent years. Other spaces have been turned into more or less public spaces for the community, like the RiverLoop Amphitheatre, Expo Plaza and the Waterloo Dek Hockey rink.
Entrepreneurs looking for reasonable rents have been attracted to downtown on both sides of the river, and even begun straying past Fourth Street, including Boujee Berries and The Spot, which both opened up in the 600 block of Sycamore Street in the past year.
“There’s just a lot of excitement and vibrancy, and people are seeing that good things are happening and this is just a great place to play and live and run their businesses,” Rucker said. “It’s spreading like wildfire.”
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But it wasn’t always such a rosy outlook.
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.
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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.
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John Molseed, a former Courier reporter who began volunteering with Main Street in 2012 and later served as 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 Walden 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 Experience Waterloo, formerly 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 Hall sees a shift in that mindset nonetheless — he 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 remembers 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.
Rucker says it’s something she sees continuing for a long time.
“We’re really excited about the momentum and excited to keep it going,” she said. “We don’t see any end in sight for us.”