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Rural Downtowns Sit Quiet With Businesses Closed

Courtesy of Robby Pedersen
A snapshot of downtown Jefferson in late April, where businesses are closed or adapting to new ways of serving customers amid the pandemic.

Downtowns were once a hub for general retail. Then they transitioned to having more restaurants and specialty stores like gift shops. Now those types of businesses are closed in Iowa because of COVID-19. 

Denise Lake runs Giftique in downtown Sac City, where she sells flowers, baby toys, candles and more. Lake’s business is closed, but she is taking orders by phone and delivering them. She recently booked flowers for a wedding by phone.

“We went through her bridesmaids’ bouquets, her bouquet, corsages, boutonnieres,” Lake said.

Usually, Lake sees around 15 people a day in her store. Since she had to close her doors, business is down. She said both sides of the street used to be lined with parked cars in the noon hour. But at noon now, “It’s very rare to see more than five or six cars,” she said.

Lake said that quiet is “awful.” The hardware store across the street is still open, and the pharmacy and the bank are doing pick-up and drop-off. The steakhouse is closed.

“I think people still are coming downtown, but they’re coming for different purposes and staying a different amount of time,” said Lance Wilhelm, the president of the Sac City Chamber Main Street board.

Wilhelm said some of the businesses that had to close are adapting. They’re delivering goods, or they’ve launched online stores. Wilhelm said the majority of the businesses will take a financial hit, but likely not one big enough to make them close permanently.

“And if you were to come to downtown Sac City in March 2021, it probably won’t look significantly different in terms of what businesses are there, if you would’ve come on March 1 of this year,” Wilhelm said. 

Our goal was to be a vibrant, active, pedestrian-friendly community downtown with lots of activity, and right now it's the complete opposite. -Peg Raney, Jefferson Matters: Main Street

In downtown Jefferson, the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower still chimes on the hour and each quarter-hour. It’s a city landmark and a big draw to tourists. But now, no tourists are coming to enjoy it. Peg Raney, the program director of Jefferson Matters: Main Street, said people are proud of what the city's downtown has to offer, but it's unable to hold activities today. Many businesses are closed and events have been postponed or canceled. The city’s annual Bell Tower Festival was scheduled for mid-June, but will not happen likely until late August, if it’s allowed, she said.

“Our goal was to be a vibrant, active, pedestrian-friendly community downtown with lots of activity, and right now it’s the complete opposite,” Raney said.

Downtown has an "eerie quietness", one business owner said, though Raney said some businesses have been doing takeout and delivery. A flower shop is selling plants by showing them off on Facebook Live. A dance studio is giving lessons by Zoom.

“The residents are doing the best they can to support our businesses,” Raney said, “but it’s just not the same.”

And some business owners say it feels like there isn't much they can do right now, like Robby Pedersen, who builds 1870s furniture using just tools from the 1870s. Pedersen’s business RVP~1875 also includes a museum, but now he’s not able to show off his furniture to people who might want to get something custom-made. He is building a sawbuck-style dining table for a customer, but after he’s done with that he’s got no other orders.

“I’ve got a $3,000 turnkey to keep this place going to pay my mortgage and my insurance,” Pedersen said, “and I have no idea in May where that’s going to come from.”

Pedersen, who also runs a professional theater company, hasn’t applied for any aid. He said he would rather work to get by than get a handout. He hopes to get back on his feet once the economy rebounds and tourists come back to Jefferson.

“And it’s my job to make sure that all those hundreds of years of history didn’t get lost forever,” Pedersen said. “I’m on a lifelong quest. There will be no retirement for me. I will do this until I can’t do it anymore. I hope that’s in my 90s.”

Besides the pause in tourism, there is another issue for downtown. Jefferson and its Main Street program had been using funding to renovate worn-down vacant buildings to bring in new businesses. But it’s hard to attract new businesses right now. That means even when downtown becomes active again, it may be a while before it can take on new life.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.