October 28, 2021

Survey responses lead to Strategic Planning Session and priorities for downtown Osceola

For Osceola Chamber Mainstreet

A ten-member team of two Main Street Iowa Representatives; OCMS Director Ashleigh Eckels and Board Members, Casey Spoelstra, Dave Opie, and John Kempen; City Manager, Ty Wheeler; City Council Member, Tom Bahls; Duane Fletcher, Historic Commission, and Clarke County Development Corporation Executive Director, Bill Tricky, met October 7th for a Market Study & Strategies work session.

There were three goals for the meeting: Review the business and community surveys conducted by OCMS and Main Street Iowa; discuss top priorities and come to a consensus on two transformational strategies with activities for Downtown Osceola.

Osceola Foods Plant Manager and OCMS Board Member, John Kempen appreciated the Main Street process, “The Market Strategies session was an awesome opportunity to collaborate with other city leaders and volunteers to help set a course of action, a vision, for the Osceola Chamber Mainstreet vision for the next 1-3 years. The Osceola Square and its surrounding buildings and businesses need to continue to be the cornerstone of small-town America now and for the next generation. This session allowed us to see what this community and square area can be when given the right focus and purpose for the short and long term betterment of the city.”

Consumer survey reveals strengths, areas for improvement and aspirations for Osceola

Results of the anonymous survey, open to the whole community, show strong connections between living/working in Osceola to spending habits and activities and revealed clear desires for more options and suggestions for improvements. *(business survey results were summarized in the 10-4 issue of In the Know)

A snapshot of those who responded: 73% female to fewer than 25% identifying as male, nearly 98% white/Caucasian with most being 25-44 or 55-74 years old, and all but 8% had a household of two or more.

Strong connections between community and consumer spending

Of the community respondents, the majority identified as living and working in Osceola and cited major activities of dining, shopping, unique events, banking/financial, and work. Office visits, recreation, religious, school, government and personal services represented the next tier of activities.

Grocery stores garnered the vast majority of write-in answers to the question, “What is the one business you visit most frequently.” Sixty percent of those who answered cited general shopping in Osceola one or two days a week.

Combined, about 62% stated they do errands, such as visit the post office, barber, chiropractor, etc. one-two times per week or daily and about 70% indicated they dine in Osceola at least once or twice a month. The community would also like to see more dining options with casual dining, specialty pizza, brew pub, bakery, steak house, Italian and sports bar being the top choices. Several franchise-type eateries were named in the write-in responses.

If given a choice of new stores, arts/crafts/hobbies, women’s clothing, sporting goods, a general variety store and home furnishings came out on top, and the highest write-in response was shoe store. Many of these answers closely align with why people purchased from Internet sites or left Osceola to shop. Home furnishing, women’s/men’s clothing, and gifts garnered the most votes followed by electronics, arts and hobbies, sporting goods, and beauty products.

Main Street Business Specialist, Robin Bostrom, said these perceived or real deficiencies are wonderful opportunities for new business or offer ideas for adjustments existing businesses could make in goods and marketing.

‘It’s not just about shopping and dining’

The survey, however, did not just focus on spending. Understanding where people get their news, what they would like improved, what they would not change, and housing preferences help leaders make decisions about how to attract and sustain population and support and recruit businesses.

When asked where they get local news, eighty percent of responders indicated social media, followed by evenly divided votes for the Osceola Sentinel Tribune, Advertiser and Websites. The most popular social media is Facebook, followed by Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and You Tube.

Owning single-family dwellings whether in town or country is highly preferred over renting, however, a majority of those people indicated home payments needed to be between $500-$950 per month.

What is loved about Osceola and what needs to change

For people analyzing results of the 50 pages of questions and answers, the write-in responses on the final pages provide clarity for what is great about Osceola and what needs to improve. Sixty-six percent of the survey replies indicated Osceola is improving/making progress or holding its own and 33% chose the answer of declining or losing ground.

Most people would never change the friendly, supportive, rural, small-town feel, walkability of the downtown, historic buildings, and unique shops. The Fourth of July Celebration is the most loved event, and the parks, walking trails and variety of activities are appreciated.

Although most individuals realize change takes time and money, a high number of written responses pointed to unsightly buildings and properties as being very detrimental to the overall appeal of Osceola. Suggestions for remediation include enforcing codes governing junk removal, overgrown lots, and unsafe structures. Improvements could be as drastic as complete removal of dilapidated, empty houses and buildings to mowing, sprucing up landscape and painting.

Respondents are hopeful old infrastructure, such as sidewalks and storm sewers will soon be modernized, and empty storefronts will be rehabilitated and filled with businesses to enhance shopping and dining experiences. Suggestions to remedy these problems are incentivizing property owners with grants or free services and lowering property taxes.

Next steps

The partnership of OCMS with Main Street Iowa is invaluable when processing this much information in a brief time period. Their specialists analyze results and share insights from an ‘outsider’ perspective and although they do not tell planning teams what they should do, they help stakeholders streamline discussions. The findings are just the beginning of the work which will align activities with priorities.

The group began with four strategies and voted to focus on two with unanimous support:

  • Develop a plan for vacant buildings
  • Support downtown businesses during the streetscape process now slated for Spring 2022

With infrastructure along the Highway 34 and 69 corridors already being improved, new Federal and State upper story housing grant opportunities, and the Façade Improvement grants supported by CCDC, some of the activities to support the identified strategies are well underway.

Proposed ‘Back Door Grant’ illustrates another collaborative effort to help businesses

CCDC Director, Bill Trickey believes grant support is key in helping downtown businesses, stating, “The Osceola Square, like all Squares in Rural Iowa, is a destination for many out of town visitors. A number of locally owned businesses call it home. In these times of economic uncertainty maintaining the appearance of buildings has been a challenge for all the locally owned and operated businesses, especially those on the square. Last year CCDC collaborated [with OCMS] on the creation of a Business Improvement Grant program. It was funded by the CCDC Pillars Grant program and administered by OCMS.”

To date nine grants totaling $80,994.23 have been awarded. At a recent CCDC Board work session the topic of the appearance of the back sides of buildings on the Square came up. Staff was directed to look for ideas on how to help with improvement. A few days later at the OCMS Strategic Planning Session, facilitated by Mainstreet Iowa, a need to help Square Businesses work through the upcoming square renovations was identified. As the front doors of businesses will be impacted by the renovation with new sidewalks etc., it was suggested that Back Doors could become an important strategy for Businesses on the Square during the renovation.

With these conversations in mind CCDC Staff and OSMS Director, Ashleigh Eckels came up with a new Grant program idea. This one will be presented to the CCDC Board for approval at the monthly Board meeting on October 13th and if approved, will provide $5,000 matching grants to Square Business owners- it would initially be funded at the $50,000 level.