Iowa City Downtown District inspires community creativity

The Iowa City Downtown District is heavily involved in the city’s public art ventures. Local business owners are among the committee’s members. The most recent project, Tree Huggers, yarn-bombed downtown with hand-knit sweaters for trees. 

The Iowa City Downtown District is working to beautify downtown through short and long-term projects that encourage community members to participate. Several of their committees including special events, marketing and infrastructure collaborate on creative ventures around Iowa City such as BenchMarks and Tree Huggers.

“We are cursed with ideas,” said Mark Ginsberg, owner of local jewelry shop M.C. Ginsberg and district board member.  “The effort is to show that there is an aggregate agreement to go in the same direction, all of the committees are working as a whole and the best ideas rise to the top.”

Ginsberg said the nice part about having an influx of ideas is that they attract great partners. With a large participation by the University that they had not had in the past more opportunity for promotion and awareness of projects is possible.

“There’s a community buy in too, that helps persuade underwriters to invest in projects,” Ginsberg said. “We are going after everybody that wants to participate in their community.”

Funding and Mission

The Downtown District of Iowa City is a recent name change for the organization, as prior to last January it was called the Self Supporting Municipal Improvement District. Director of the Iowa City Downtown District, Nicholas Arnold said the group is a self-funded tax district that collects tax revenue to further expand what they can do and to ultimately grow their operation.

The group is a non-profit organization funded through contributions from property taxes assessed to properties in Downtown Iowa City and the Northside Marketplace. This along with financial support from The University of Iowa allows them to undertake programs to promote and support downtown as a business, social and cultural hot spot.

“For us to have people that are continually creative…I think that’s tremendous,” Ginsberg said.

Ginsberg believes that being in this leading position is difficult because you continually need to reinvent yourself. He sees his work as the opportunity to turn people into alumni of our downtown as well as our university.

Current Projects

The special events committee is in charge of this falls most recent small group project, Tree Huggers. They also work on larger annual events such as Taste of Iowa City and Celebrate the Season among others.

“The end goal is to bring people into downtown to create an environment that makes it a fun place to be,” Ritu Jain, owner of the local business Textiles and co-hard of the special events committee said. “A project about beautification gets people invested in coming downtown to view the projects.”

Well over 100 trees are now clad in colorful hand-knit yarn sweaters due to the Tree Huggers Project. The Downtown District partnered with local business Home Ec. Workshop to bring the yarn to the knitters, while Total Tree Care sponsored the project. The tree sweaters are meant to bring a splash of color to a normally dreary season. Not only local community members of all ages, but even die-hard fans of this project sent in their tree sweaters from out-of-town.

Joni Schrup, owner of Discerning Eye and co-head of special events said she at Jain went around and measured and mapped 135 trees, which would receive custom-fit knits. She also said using social media helped to get the word out about a need for volunteers and stirred a lot of interaction.

“We posted on our Facebook page at the store and got a lot of comments,” Schrup said. “It was a mixed reaction, we did get a few naysayers.”

The colorful project was so well received that they had more knitters than trees. Jain said that up to ten knitters shared one tree so that everyone could participate.

“A lot of our customers are knitters so it was community building,” Jain said. “It was great out reach.”

Looking Forward

For the upcoming winter season a smorgasbord of projects will electrify downtown Iowa City. The city will elegantly light up, as a set decorative lighting for downtown will go up the night before Thanksgiving. Also on the list is a glass blowing presentation and Celebrate the Season, the city’s annual Christmas celebration. Ginsberg also said there is talk of expanding on the Piano Project from only four pianos to as many as 12.

“The whole board is making sure people who want to be involved are involved and those who have never been or are afraid or shy will get involved,” Ginsberg said.

With a diverse group of people with different strengths anything is possible. Jain said the energy the group generates off of each other is amazing and she thoroughly enjoys her work.

“I grew up in this town and seeing the heart of the city thrive is fantastic,” Jain said.


Check out this Audio Slideshow of the colorful new downtown scene 


Iowa City’s current public art budget insubstantial 

In 1998, the Public Art Advisory Committee developed the policies and procedures for commissioning, procurement and maintenance of public art projects. At the start, $100,000 was set aside per fiscal year for public art. This budget lasted through 2003 when a large cut was made.

According to Marcia Bollinger, Neighborhood Services Coordinator, this first reduction to $50,000 was somewhat forecasted as the prior figure was intended to kick start the program.

During the fiscal year 2010, Iowa City experienced significant budget shortfalls and so it was reduced to $14,750. Today, the public art budget is a low $2,750, which only covers maintenance costs.

Bollinger also stated that policy makers do not consider public art an essential program particularly when other services such as police and fire cannot be adequately funded.

Google Fusion Charts: City of Iowa City, Expenditures Fiscal Year 2013, comparison of Culture and Recreation and Community and Economic Development Budgets.

*According to Kevin O’Malley, Finance Director, public art is included under the Community and Economic Development umbrella.

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