Business District works to rebuild businesses — and history

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS Since the July 19 tornado, the Marshalltown Central Business District (MCBD) has been working with business owners to assess damages and find strategies to repair and restore their stores, concentrating on historic preservation of the buildings. Here, MCBD Executive Director Jenny Etter, right, meets with Cassandra Gerstandt who co-owns Black Tire Bike Co., 117 W. Main St., along with husband Matt Gerstandt.

Marshalltown Central Business District (MCBD) Executive Director Jenny Etter, plus a slew of volunteers, have worked with downtown business and building owners to help them only get back on their feet. Etter, who has served as director the last six years, was flying back from vacation on July 19 when she saw the news reports of the tornado flash on television screens in the Philadelphia International Airport.

“We got in about 1 a.m. and I’m to work at 7 a.m., and it feels like we haven’t stopped,” she said.

Shortly after the tornado, the MCBD established a Tornado Relief Fund, viewable at donorbox.org/recovery-support-for-downtown-business-district.

“Fund allocation will be decided once things settle down and the need is assessed. Your donation will go directly to help funding recovery and repair efforts and will not go towards programs of MCBD,” according to the website.

Etter said the funds raised will assist these businesses in not only making the necessary repairs, but helping them restore the structures.

“A lot of these facades are covering up beautiful masonry work and windows and cornices and historic stuff that’s just unbelievable and I think as we take these facades off these buildings, people are just going to be amazed at how beautiful they really are, so our Tornado Relief Fund is to do just that — after the insurance company pays, what kind of gaps are they going to have to replace this stuff?” Etter said. “The insurance companies, a lot of them, only want to pay you for putting it back exactly the way it was — meaning, putting the facade back on it — but what we want is to have it better than that, and when we’re redoing buildings and helping people, we want these buildings to look as beautiful as they used to look, so we’re really encouraging people to spend the time, effort and money to make these look like they should.”

Currently, around $23,000 has been secured for this fund.

City funds

The MCBD board approached the Marshalltown City Council about reallocating $40,000 from the city-funded Facade Grant program. At the Aug. 13 meeting, the board voted unanimously for the reallocation.

Aaron Buzbee, who owns two downtown businesses — Zeno’s Pizza and Fiddle & Whistle Irish Pub — serves as vice president of the MCBD board. At the council meeting, he explained what the funds will go toward.

“The $40,000 will help us bridge the gap. The MCBD is funded primarily through membership dues. And, the $40,000 in tandem with other grants and resources will allow us to help all businesses when downtown needs us the most.”

Etter said there are 214 buildings in the downtown with around 150 businesses.

“In the past, MCBD has provided services to its members, and that’s the revenue also that we have each year — through our membership and pledge drive,” Etter said. “But now it would be very insensitive of us to be asking people in the downtown for memberships and a pledge drive when they need to spend all their money on fixing their buildings. So those funds aren’t available to us for a while. The city is giving us that money so that not only can we keep our doors open, but now we’re just saying everybody in the downtown is a member, and everybody gets services, but in order to do that, we need additional money.”

Etter said the $40,000 will also go toward paying her salary.

“I’m a staff of one, plus we have volunteers. We have always run this on a shoe-string budget. Nobody is getting rich off this; it’s keeping us afloat,” she said.

The MCBD was founded in 2002. It works to restore, enhance and preserve Marshalltown’s downtown as a way of building commerce and attracting folks to the community.

Etter said DeShan Zhang, owner of the 1890-era building at 5 W. Main St. (the current site of Ocean City Chinese Restaurant), is in the beginning stages of restoring the structure to its former Fidelity Savings Bank splendor.

“But it will take a lot of money,” she said.

Every business is different. While some entities sustained minimal damage, others were a complete loss. Gas leaks, shifted foundations and damaged roofs all pose hazards. Downtown street closures and blocked sidewalks have reduced the traffic to downtown businesses. For example, Kim and Jerry Gratopp, owners of Smokin’ G’s BBQ Restaurant, decided to reopen their eatery on Aug. 8 after weighing the pros and cons.

“There’s a lot of those little detail things we’re trying to figure out. It’s hard to figure that when we still don’t know for sure what our downtown situation will be, so we’re just putting the pieces of the puzzle together, like everyone else is,” Kim said.

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com.