Welcome to Spencer Main Street!

A Brief History

In the post World War II years of the 1950”s and 1960”s, business was booming in most communities across the country. Downtown commercial districts were the center of retail activity. In addition, many other forms of commerce such as: banking, insurance services, professional services and supporting businesses were located there, many utilized the second and third floors of downtown buildings as their places of business.

In the late 60”s and into the 70”s, a movement to the suburbs or to highway commercial strips took place. The new”phenomena” of Shopping Malls started to appear in larger cities and continued to spread to smaller communities. Many downtown businesses joined the exodus to the suburbs on the edge of town. Downtowns were loosing businesses, second floors became vacant and business was moving to the malls or to highway commercial districts. We had become a vehicular society.

Downtown Spencer was experiencing much of the same movement. With the construction of the North Mall in the late 60’s and Southpark Mall in the early 80’s, downtown Spencer had many vacant storefronts. In addition, many service and professional businesses that had occupied upper floor space were moving to ground level facilities, which resulted in much vacant upper floor space.

Community promotion which in the past was centered in the downtown business district was now moving elsewhere. The North Mall and Southpark Mall had in-house promotions and the “big box” type retailers, more or less, did their own thing. Downtown seemed to be lost in the shuffle.

The remaining downtown businesses were searching for answers to this situation. What and how do we, most effectively, promote downtown Spencer? Downtown business owners like Tom and Judy Hart, Wanda and Tom Nelson, Leon Baldwin, Mike Tygret, Tom Manley, Tim and Wyman Steffen and Bob VanderTuig, just to name a few, decided to form an organization to promote the activities of downtown Spencer. They formed the Downtown Business Association and embarked on an effort to bring business back to downtown Spencer. They originated several new promotions, recruited new businesses and worked very hard to restore the vitality of Main Street.

With the successes of this new organization and the added work load for the new group and the additional volunteers needed, it became apparent that some form of part or full time management or leadership was needed. Volunteers for events and activities were adequate but the responsibility for planning and implementation of the program was lacking. Everyone had a full time job or a business to manage and the additional duties of this new organization was difficult to achieve. The solution…….the group thought becoming a part of the new program being offered by the Iowa Department of Economic Development, Main Street, may be the answer.

The Main Street program was developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an organized method of downtown development and revitalization in response to requests from communities experiencing much the same difficulties as was occurring in downtown Spencer. The Main Street Four Point Approach of downtown revitalization was unique and after being tried as a three year pilot program in three small towns across the country, was expanded to five communities in six states. This new method of downtown revitalization was so successful that the call went out to all states to submit proposals to become associated with the National Trust in downtown development.

Governor Terry Branstad, working with the Department of Economic Development, brought the Main Street Program to Iowa in 1985 and accepted applications from Iowa communities for acceptance into the system in 1986. The Spencer Downtown Business Association felt that becoming a Main Street town was an opportunity to build on their successes and insure the continuation of an ongoing revitalization effort for downtown. The application to become a participant in the first year of the program, 1986, was not successful. There were 17 applications, five were selected. Disappointed but not discouraged, the downtown Spencer group revised, improved and revamped their application for 1987 and were accepted into the program on April 3, 1987.

The Main Street approach to downtown revitalization emphasizes four points. They are: Promotion, Design, Business Improvement and Organization. The Main Street philosophy also has eight principles of success. They are: A comprehensive program, an incremental process, the program is self-help, public and private partnerships, capitalizing on existing assets, a quality program, not quantity, changing attitudes and a planed implementation process. This process when followed has proven to be successful.

Spencer Main Street Company was incorporated on August 7, 1987 with the original Board of Directors consisting of: Wyman Steffen, Tim Steffen, Tom Manley, Mary Rahn, Bob VanderTuig, Jim Getting, Chris Bjornstad, Tom Hart and Carolyn Toebes. The Board hired Steve Goodhue to be the Program Manager. Steve went about the task of organizing the company to conform with the guidelines of the Main Street formula and four point approach to downtown development. Four standing committees were formed and programs of work were established. Each Board member was expected to serve on one of the four committees with additional members added from downtown businesses. A mission statement was adopted which is the same today as twenty years ago. Annual review indicates that the mission statement continues to be appropriate and most effectively states the purpose and mission of the organization. Several years later a vision statement was adopted and most recently, a position statement was created. This process of reviewing the purpose of the organization keeps the focus on the original intent of the Company. The following excerpt from the original application for Main Street status perhaps best indicates the need for ongoing review and period changes in the goals and focus of an organization.

Response to the question, what does your community expect to achieve from the Main Street project? Answer: A comprehensive and coordinated approach to assist in the revitalization, diversification and marketing of the Spencer Main Street. An action oriented strategy that includes the preservation of our precious heritage; the visual enhancement of our many solidly constructed and well preserved buildings; and the development of leadership and promotional activities oriented toward a solid, service oriented and personalized downtown atmosphere benefiting the entire community and surrounding area.

The Board has been diligent in its efforts to keep the original reasons for becoming a Main Street Community and focus toward achieving those goals a number one priority and setting the annual program of work with that in mind.

Promotion Committee

The Promotion Committee had a rather solid foundation to build on. The ongoing activities of the Downtown Business Association such as: Downtown with Disney, springtime on Main Street and Win a Grand on Grand were successful and would continue. New promotions were created and community involvement and participation increased. Some of the promotions have survived the test of time. Thanks With Franks, Grand Meander and Moonlight Madness are nearing or exceeding 20 year anniversaries. Several others such as Beef Bonanza and Salute to Agriculture are successful for a time but eventually loose popularity and are revised or discontinued. Several promotions coincide with unusual events like February 29th, sales tax holiday or special anniversaries like the 75th anniversary of the 1931 fire.

When you sum it all up, you come to the realization that the Promotion Committee is very active, extremely busy and quite creative. They enjoy the support of all businesses in downtown Spencer and require the services of hundreds of volunteers on an annual basis. The goal of the committee is to bring people to downtown Spencer. We have much to offer, for example: the retail hub of northwest Iowa, a historic district, a cultural district, just to name a few of the features of downtown Spencer. The Promotion committee continues to work toward the goals of making our businesses successful by bringing customers to the various retail events, letting the world know we are rich in history and culture and to encourage those persons looking for a place of residence to consider our available upper floor housing. The Promotion committee believes in producing a quality product that serves the needs of downtown Spencer.

Design Committee

The design portion of the four point approach is quite extensive in that it covers a broad spectrum of highly visible activity. Spencer Main Street’s Design committee is actively involved in all aspects of making downtown an attractive place. In addition, the committee assists property owners with remodel projects that could include interior and exterior design.

One of the early projects of the Design committee was the construction of waste receptacles and flower boxes. Wayne Westoff designed and built the wooden flower boxes and waste receptacles that were used downtown for many years. He was responsible for the construction and the maintenance and the placement schedule each spring and the storing over the winter. Wayne also instigated the “Adopt a Block” project. This developed into an annual spring and fall clean-up of the entire City of Spencer. Wayne was a strong advocate of keeping the City clean and beautiful. Each year the Design Committee oversees this project.

In the early 90”s the building lighting project began. This project took several years to complete. Light strings consisting of clear, 7 watt bulbs, spaced about 15inches apart. These light strings are attached to the top outline of all buildings facing Grand Avenue plus several off Grand buildings plus, the entire structure of “Thunder Bridge” located on West 4th Street. The City of Spencer’s Public Works Department and SMU’s Electrical Department assisted by supplying bucket trucks for some of the taller buildings. Jack Campbell of Campbell Tree Service was also involved with much of the construction work and provided several volunteers as well as his bucket truck. This project took many volunteers to construct and in addition, requires a crew of three or four persons to do the maintenance twice each year when the lights are lighted during the Flagfest Celebration and during the Holiday Season.

The Design Committee has always been a strong advocate of Historic Preservation but even more so after learning of the significance of our downtown architecture. Because of the 1931 fire that destroyed several blocks of our downtown and the subsequent rebuilding of those destroyed properties in that time period, the design of that portion of our downtown is of an early 20th century / art deco style. This section of downtown Spencer is unique in having such a large collection of this type of properties. The Design Committee became involved in an effort to place a portion of Main Street on the National Register of Historic Places. The first step was to have the City of Spencer establish a Historic Preservation Commission. The next step was to become a Certified Local Government and the final step was to initiate an effort to have downtown Spencer designated as a National Register District. With the completion of the first two steps, the Historic Preservation Commission initiated an effort to achieve National Register status for downtown Spencer. The Design Committee provided the funds to hire a consultant to do the preliminary work of this project. Molly Nauman of Ottumwa conducted a three day survey of the downtown to determine if the district had the potential of achieving a National Register listing. Upon Molly’s recommendation, the Preservation Commission made the commitment to move forward and pursue a National register District designation for a major portion of downtown Spencer. Thus began a three year effort with Molly as consultant and the City of Spencer’s blessing and funding. Under the direction of Kirby Schmidt, Director of City Planning and three summer interns, the project was completed. The application was submitted to the State Historical Society in the spring of 2005 and was approved. The application was then forwarded to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In December of 2005 we were notified of the success of the application and the listing on the National Register of our downtown district. The district involves 39 properties in an area from 3rd St. to 7th St on both sides of Grand Avenue. Downtown Spencer can claim one of the largest collections of this type of architecture in the Midwest and the second Art Deco district in the entire USA.

While the historic district project was in progress, the Design Committee in conjunction with the Business Improvement Committee embarked on another improvement project, Spencer Housing Investment Corp. This Corporation was formed to assist property owners in the conversion of vacant upper floor space to up-scale housing. The Corporation is made up of representatives from all areas of the building and housing industry. These persons have invested funds and committed their skills and knowledge for the purpose of converting unused space into profitable housing. All members agree to provide, at the very lowest cost possible, their services and products plus limited financial assistance to any property owner desiring to convert unused upper floor space into productive, attractive and usable housing. The Bjornstad loft project was completed in the fall of 2005. The project converted 5000 square feet of second floor vacant space into two 2400 square foot up-scale apartments. This project accessed the low interest loan program sponsored by the Federal Home Loan Bank and Main Street Iowa available to Main Street towns. The Corporation is planning the next project.

In 2003 the Design Committee was requested to submit plans for a streetscape renovation. The City of Spencer was planning to do some infrastructure work of the storm sewer system in the downtown area. They thought it would be a great opportunity to do a total streetscape project. The Committee did some preliminary sketches and made some suggestions as to the scope of the project. The City did extensive research on streetscape projects in the surrounding area and conducted public informational meetings seeking input in what the project should included. Tim Reinders of Main Street Iowa had conducted a three day study of the downtown and made a comprehensive report of the findings. The City hired a landscape architectural firm to do further study and formulate an overall plan to incorporate as many of the ideas and desires of all concerned. The final plan was accepted by the City Council in the spring of 2003 with a financial package that included Local Option Sales tax, a small assessment of property owners and monetary contributions from various sources including $100,000.00 from Spencer Main Street Company. The first year was devoted to sewer relocation and renovation; the next two years consisted of the actual streetscape renovation. The east side of Grand was finished in 2004, the west side in 2005. New sidewalks, street lighting, decorative benches and flower planters plus a sound system for the entire downtown. The Streetscape Committee, a Committee composed of members from the Promotion and Design Committees and representatives of the City, SMU and the Construction Companies involved with the project, did an excelled job of keeping the public and the property owners informed of all necessary information regarding the project. No business was required to close for more than an hour or two. The general contractor, DeLoss Construction of Spencer was outstanding in their method of making sure there was almost no interruption of business during the construction process. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held in December of 2005 to commemorate the completion of the streetscape project.

Most recently the Design Committee has been involved in an outstanding project called the “Storefront Initiative”. This project was proposed by The Board of Directors of Spencer Municipal Utilities. The purpose of the project is to improve the appearance of all commercial buildings in the City of Spencer. The project is limited to every part of a building that is visible. New windows, doors, signs, repair to brick etc. are eligible for assistance however; roof replacement, interior remodel, plumbing, heating etc. are not eligible. The assistance is in the form of a grant and no interest loan. For example: a renovation project in the amount of $5,000 would receive a 10% grant and the remainder, a no interest loan repayable over a 10 year period. The maximum assistance would be for a $50,000.00 project which would receive a 50% grant ant remainder a no interest loan. A sub-committee of the Design Committee serves as the review committee on all projects. The review committee’s responsibility is to make sure each project complies with all zoning regulations and meets all requirements of the historic district. SMU is funding the project including the reimbursement of interest to the participating Spencer banks. The Design Committee rarely is without activity.


The traditional duties of an Organization Committee are: fund raising, volunteer recruitment and inter organizational communication. Early on, Spencer Main Street’s Organization decided, in conjunction with the Board of Directors that annual funding raising drives and funding through membership was not the most productive use of a manager’s time, not to mention the volunteer time of the Board. A decision was reached in 1987 is establish a Self supported Municipal Improvement district. This is a process whereby property owners in a designate business district agree to levy an assessment of their properties for the purpose of supporting an organization like Spencer Main Street. The Board initiated the process and in 1998 the SSMID District was established. The assessment of the district generates approximately $55,000.00 annually which is used as the major supp0ort of the Main Street Program. This has been a great benefit to the organization allowing the Board and the Manager to dedicate their efforts to management and implementation of the events and activities and not being required to spend large amounts of time raising funds. Although the Organization is not actively engaged is fundraising, they are involved in the annual budgeting process.

Volunteer recruitment is not a requirement of the Organization as each event and activity develop their own volunteer base. This has worked well for Spencer Main Street Co.

Public communication is achieved by the publication of Business Monthly, the monthly tabloid that is produced jointly by Spencer Main Street Company and the Spencer Chamber of Commerce. The Spencer Daily Reporter is the publisher and the distribution is through the regular edition of the Daily Reporter and a few mail subscribers. This has accomplished the goal of communicating our news to the public. Information to downtown property owners and tenants is done on a need basis. Whenever additional information distribution is needed, an informational bulletin is hand delivered.

In the spring of 2008 an e-mail newsletter was developed. About 80% of the downtown businesses have an e-mail address and in just a short time most everyone will be reached with this publication. This will be an occasional publication when information of importance should be distributed.

The Organization Committee actively encourages each committee or event to produce workplans. Workplans state the purpose of and the method of implementation of events. It is also a necessary method of tracking expenses and valuable when formulating each year’s annual budget.

The Organization is responsible for the Company’s Annual Meeting. Each year the process begins with the nomination of candidates for the four Board of Director positions. Main Street has a 12 person Board with four persons elected by the membership each year. The term of office is three years. In the 20 years of existence, the Main Street Board has rarely had a member serve more that two terms and rarely does a member repeat a term. The Committee believes this is the best method of bringing new ideas and new people to management positions of the Company. At the Annual Meeting, outstanding volunteers are honored for their contribution to the organization.

The Organization committee is in charge of making nominations to Main Street Iowa for the Annual Main Street Awards. Over the years Spencer has been fortunate to receive State recognition for many of our projects and promotions. In the past twenty years Spencer Main Street has received “Best in State Awards” for most of our ongoing promotion, the Bjornstad project, the establishment of Spencer Housing Investment Inc. and numerous outstanding volunteer organizations and persons. At the annual Main Street Award ceremony in 2000, Spencer Main Street Company was honored with the Spirit of Main Street Award.

Business Improvement

The Business Improvement Committee had a difficult task in 1987. If you refer to the original application you will see a reference to the vacancy in downtown Spencer. According to the application there were 20 vacant buildings in our downtown when Main Street was accepted into the Main Street program. The B I Committee worked long and hard at recruiting appropriate businesses to fill those vacancies. Success was slow in coming but perseverance and dedication paid off and slowly the downtown came back to life. In the mid 80’s the economy of the State and the Nation was not good. By the early 90’s the economy began an up-turn which helped in business recruitment and retention of downtown businesses. By mid 1990 there were few if any vacancies.

The Committee shifted its focus in the late 1990’s to upper floor development. Having observed at a Main Street Workshop the success of Grinell and Waverly with upper floor development, the Committee initiated the effort to establish the Spencer Housing Investment Corp. The SHIC was formed, capitalized, incorporated and embarked on the first project. Chris Bjornstad offered his building’s second floor for development into two loft-style apartments. The project was successful and serves as an example for other building owners in downtown Spencer.

The B I Committee is actively involved with the local SCORE Chapter and works with Iowa Lakes Small Development Center is assisting start-up businesses and business expansions. The Committee maintains a new business manual available to anyone wishing to start a business and Committee members are available to consult when needed.

The Committee conducts an annual business visitation to all downtown businesses to offer assistance and dispense information.

Board of Directors

The original Board of Directors had a huge responsibility both to the new organization and to the Community of Spencer who was very supportive in the effort to achieve Main Street status. Those nine people, listed above, went about the task of forming a solid foundation for the Company and staffing it with a very energetic and capable Program Manager in Steve Goodhue. The formative years saw many volunteers, excited about this new idea, come forward and give of their time and talent. The organization was fortunate to be well received by the community and was successful right from the start. Committees were formed and staffed, workplans were established and Spencer Main Street Company was off and running. In 1990 Steve Goodhue accepted the position of Executive Director of Spencer Chamber of Commerce. Doug Pals was named Program Manager in early 1990. The organization continued to grow and prosper and by 1992 had achieved five years of success. The Fina project was under way and new and expanding businesses were filling vacant storefronts. Doug Pals resigned in June of 1992 to pursue other interests. The Board was faced with a decision of whether to continue the Main Street program or be satisfied with the success of the past five years and cease to be involved in this form of downtown development. The Board decision was to search for a part-time manager, continue the program for a short period of time and evaluate the situation later in the summer of 1992. Board members Chuck Gass and Tim Frank approached Bob Rose and offered the part-time position which was accepted in June. By August of that year it became apparent the Main Street program should continue to be the driving force of economic development in downtown Spencer. Bob Rose was hired as the full-time Program Manager at that time and continues to be in that position today.

Establishing the SSMID District took great effort. This was something new for Spencer and required much explanation. Boundaries were set for the district, petitions were circulated, rates of assessment were established and finally the proposition was presented to the Spencer City Council. The ordinance was passed unanimously. With the passage of the SSMID District, financing of the Company was established and assured.

Main Street organizations usually take several years to move forward with a major project. Spencer Main Street Company is not your average Main Street Company. When the vacant service station property on the corner of West 4th and 1st Ave. West became available, the Board proposed a project of major proportions. The purchase of the property, the demolition of existing buildings, removal of damaged paving and the establishment of a parking facility to accommodate 30 vehicles plus a green space for beautification of the area was the plan. The City advanced funds for the purchase price of the property and the Board established a “Fina Project Committee”. Paul Maurer, Randy Krukow, Terry Kunzmann, Tom Nelson Jr., Ann Lohman were all members of the Committee. Demolition started in 1992 and the project was completed in 1994. The wet year of 1993 slowed construction to almost a standstill. When the completed project was dedicated, the then Board President Bob Knoup said “we wanted a first-time project that the community could look to and be amazed. I think we have achieved that goal”.

In 1997 the Board was faced with another major decision, that being a proposal by the Board of Directors of Spencer Chamber of Commerce to share the duties of an Executive Director. The Chamber had experienced rapid turnover of Directors and proposed the sharing of a Director and the reassigning of Chamber staff duties. The Board was receptive of the idea with a few reservations. Number One; the Board would not agree to a merger of the two organizations, each organization would be autonomous with separate Boards of Directors and separate budgets with the Chamber reimbursing Main Street for a portion of the Program Managers salary and Number Two; sharing of staff would be determined by the Program Manager and not administered by the Board. The agreement was reached in December of 1997 to start January 1, 1998. After one year the Boards would meet and review the results. The process has been in place continuously and is successfully implemented by each organization with no need of change.

The members of the Boards of Directors through the years have all been dedicated to the task of bringing the best program of work to Spencer Main Street Company. They have all adhered to the concept that the Board sets policy and the staff implements that policy. In twenty one years Spencer Main Street Company has seen nearly 100 volunteers serve on the Board of Directors. The Organization is fortunate to have been served by so many willing and able people. The future looks bright for downtown Spencer. New retail stores on the north end of the district, the Storefront Initiative, a completed streetscape and a new Grand Avenue Bridge all bode well for Main Street.