At Monday’s marathon Newton City Council meeting, Finance and Development Director Bryan Friedman and Planning and Zoning Director Erin Chambers made their monthly update on progress on the city’s Action Plan.
“Each month, we will be coming to you with an update on one of the goals of the Action Plan,” Friedman said. “We’ve previously discussed goals A and B, so this month we’re going to discuss Goal C ... this is something we will continue to do each month for the next couple of years.”
Goal C of the Action Plan is titled “Make Newton a Growing Center for Business and Commerce in Central Iowa.” It has five major components:
• Create a Vibrant Downtown
• Expand City’s Economic Development Opportunities
• Utilize the City’s TIF Programs to the Greatest Extent Possible
• Establish a Strategy for Drawing Young Families to the Community
• Implement Portions of the Comprehensive Plan Related to Economic Development
Friedman and Chambers took turns updating councilors on each of those components. They noted the Newton Downtown area is the heart of the community, and a key to city-wide economic development initiatives.
Efforts to develop a vision and strategy for the Newton Downtown area were initially targeted for a Dec. 1 completion date. However, should Newton be designated a Main Street Community, a number of useful tools for the development of a vision and strategy would immediately become available through the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Main Street Iowa.
Friedman noted the North Central Urban Renewal Area was expanded to include the Newton Downtown area at the Oct. 7 council meeting. An ordinance will come before the council Nov. 4 to change the North Central TIF District boundaries to cover that area.
In his notes to the council prior to the meeting, Friedman said the expanded TIF district would allow for funding to be used on streetscaping of the Jasper County Courthouse square area.
Friedman noted the changes to the Urban Renewal Plans were meant to conform to changes in Iowa Code. Councilors and mayor Michael Hansen joked a couple times about “going to jail,” but the new provisions are no joking matter to state officials.
City staff has worked diligently, City Administrator Bob Knabel said, to ensure the city is using money generated by Newton’s TIF districts for their stated purposes. The goal is to also make additional “targeted investments” mean to improve economic development in the city.
The Newton Downtown Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District Board has been meeting regularly to plan and make decisions about the $12,800 in collected SSMID taxes, as well as an additional $5,000 pledged by Renew Newton.
A number of improvements to the Newton Downtown area have been identified:
• six new trashcans will be added to the district,
• seasonal city staff conducted periodic clean-up and sidewalk sweeping in the district, and
• the flower beds were watered and maintained.
Chambers noted the SSMID Board conducted a walking tour in July to assess the needs of the district. She said an online community survey is available at www.newtongov.org/downtownsurvey.
Asked by councilors about initial glitches with the survey website, Chambers said those have been fixed. She encouraged everyone in the community to participate.
Chambers also is a member of the Main Street Program application team, which meets at 7:30 a.m. every Thursday in the Greater Newton Area Chamber of Commerce conference room. She said the Newton Historic Preservation Commission’s efforts to have the Newton Downtown area become part of the National Register of Historic Places have been helpful in the Main Street Program efforts, as well.
The district is expected to be listed on the National Register next year.
“There will be community rallies Nov. 7 at the Capitol II Theater. One will be at noon, the other at 5:30 p.m.,” she said. “We hope as many of you as possible can come as we try to build support for the Main Street Program. It will be a great opportunity for the community to learn more about the process.”
Work continues on efforts to install way-finding signs, not only in the Newton Downtown area, but throughout the entire community. Design work is nearly complete, and the city is working with the Iowa Department of Transportation on way-finding signage rules along Iowa Highway 14 and First Avenue (U.S. Highway 6).
A group of volunteers throughout the community is working to develop a new branding and marketing strategy for the city. City staff has also been working with the Greater Des Moines Partnership through its Capital Crossroads program, which Friedman said could also benefit Newton’s economic development efforts.
Public Works Director Keith Laube updated the council on the city’s $8,000 grant from the Central Iowa Regional Transportation Planning Alliance to study Newton’s needs for park-and-ride service. He said the study will identify needs and possible locations, but could not say when — or if — a park-and-ride program would get underway.
Another key component of Goal C is to draw young families to Newton. A major partner in the city’s effort in this regard has been the Newton Community School District, which has also played a role in the branding and marketing efforts underway.
The current Comprehensive Plan calls for more collaboration between the school district and local businesses and organizations. The school district itself has reached out to the community, asking for its help with its own District Improvement Team efforts.
Meanwhile, the Newton Parks Board is working on a long-range plan for the city’s parks system to improve park facilities to meet the needs of those who are using them. The board is prioritizing projects to enhance existing parks.
Previously, the council approved moving forward with the Buxton Study, which will provide detailed information to assist existing businesses, as well as to draw new retail businesses to Newton. And, the city is working to promote and become more involved in community events.
Chambers noted the painted snowplow blades that were a part of the Chamber’s annual Fourth of July Parade. She also pointed out the city had a booth at Thanks With Franks this year.
Improvements to the Maytag Bowl has also provided a “top-notch venue” for community events, like Bowlful of Blues. And, at the Oct. 7 meeting, Library Director Sue Padilla outlined the library’s efforts to engage new people in the community.
Chambers also noted the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, an 18-member citizen advisory committee created in April, has created a budget with the $250,000 it was allocated. It has since broken up into smaller teams to address the following projects:
• way-finding signage;
• clean-up of the First Avenue West neighborhood, starting with the railroad bridge;
• efforts to install sculptures for the Rent-a-Sculpture efforts with a call to artists planned over the winter and installation in April or May;
• branding and marketing, which is nearing completion; and
• analysis of how the Keep Iowa Beautiful program and complement the city’s community grant writer efforts.
Councilor Noreen Otto was quick to point out, following the presentation, how good it was to see the Action Plan go from just a plan to real action. Other members of the council echoed those sentiments.