Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Downtown Decorah

We were up in Decorah last weekend for Family Weekend at Luther College, where our son Robbie is a first-year student. I was interested to see that Decorah's downtown merchants had a spot on the program, and circulated a flyer to all students. That shows a degree, remarkable in my experience, of cooperation between downtown and the college.

We eschewed the program but spent a good bit of time in downtown Decorah, a thriving collection of shops mostly along Water Street. There were banks, a movie theater, and two coffeeshops, and the Oneota Community Food Cooperative, which (like the college) actively supports local producers...

...not to mention the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. The rest were restaurants (of which we patronized two) and specialty shops. But Fareway and Ace Hardware are two blocks south of Water. So a Decorah resident could get most of what they need within easy walking distance of their home. I couldn't ask more of a downtown than that.

It's easily connected to most of town...
Mechanic Street, looking up from Water Street towards residential area
...and while it's a hike from campus it's a do-able one. The buildings are old and attractive, and most will outlive their current occupants.

(Contrast that with the Wal-Mart at the edge of town, which is isolated and built to be temporary.)

There is a lot of parking, both on-street and surface lots, but the lots are downhill from the shops and so don't mar the streetscape.

There are prominent bike racks...

...but the narrow streets with parking on either side make them hard to bike on. Robbie says that while you are not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, he does anyway.

Decorah's experience is not easily transferable to other towns. As host to a thriving college, it has a steady flow of income from outside that can sustain all these businesses. (In Iowa, Mt. Vernon and Grinnell are similarly blessed, and also have nice accessible downtowns.) So it has advantages that don't apply to, say, the nearby town of West Union, which has put considerable resources into its own downtown.

Still, as a thriving community resource and attractive central place, where business owners cooperate in outreach to the town and the college, Decorah can be a model for other towns to follow. It occurred to me to wonder why small Decorah can support a food co-op and other thriving downtown businesses, while ten-times-its-size Cedar Rapids cannot.


Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce site:

Picture essay on Decorah's historic architecture:

For a critique of Wal-Mart's building strategy, see Strong Towns podcast #152, "Rich Versus Wealthy,"

1 comment:

  1. I would add Fairfield to your list of Iowa college towns with accessible downtowns.


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