Keosauqua Placemaking Action Plan

Tucked in the “big bend” of the Des Moines River, Keosauqua is a hidden Iowa treasure. The community has the makings of a great small town: shared core values, charming shops, natural amenities, and historic architecture. There are no stoplights or fast food restaurants in all of Van Buren County, but locally-owned Misty’s Malt Shop has garnered a following thanks to its world-famous black raspberry ice cream.

While it oozes with charm, Keosauqua still faces the same challenges that nearly every community – large or small – runs into, including housing and workforce issues. Forty percent of Keosauqua residents work elsewhere, and just eleven new housing units have been constructed since 2010.

With this placemaking action plan, Keosauqua leaders are stepping up to change those numbers and to move towards a more vibrant future for the community and its 1,029 residents.

Keosauqua Map

Community Visioning

Community input is the foundation of any placemaking action plan. During three visioning sessions, Keosauqua residents shared their hopes and dreams for the community as well as challenges – both real and perceived – they believe are holding the community back.

Recurring themes throughout the three sessions related to housing and needing more amenities; there are “five bars in town, but no other entertainment.” Many residents also recognized the need to brand the community but wrestled with how that dynamic unfolds with the existing Villages of Van Buren marketing efforts.

Taking a deeper look at housing, residents believe this issue is “one of the greatest challenges.” Prices for new construction have risen dramatically, but there are not many existing units available. Residents in all three sessions echoed the need for a range of more housing units – single family homes, duplexes, fourplexes, condos, and assisted living, for example. With an aging population, residents recognized the need to have options to downsize if people are to stay in the community.

Residents also believe that enhanced dining options could help keep people of all ages in the community and could draw visitors. Visioning participants believe restaurants should be downtown and have a family-friendly vibe. They would like to see area restaurants leverage the area’s agricultural heritage, thereby supporting tourism in Keosauqua and Van Buren County.

Jobs are another key to success for Keosauqua. Residents noted the “rural renaissance,” with many young people moving back to the community. It took some of these individuals two years to find a job in the community, as there are not many opportunities in certain industries. In other industries, such as education and healthcare, it is hard to find talent to fill open positions.

Residents see enhancing downtown as one way of helping to draw talent. There are a variety of mechanisms by which this could be accomplished, including beautification, better signage, more shops, full usage of all buildings, and connectivity with the broader trails system.

A cultural center is “a definite,” and most residents believe this should be downtown. Residents want the cultural center to offer a range of classes and to leverage a number of existing groups to ensure full use of the space.

A complete summary of the visioning sessions is available in Appendix A.

Guided by the community visioning sessions, a number of ideas were vetted to ensure project viability over the long run. From this review, three key initiatives emerged to drive both population and economic growth in Keosauqua:

  • Community cultural center
  • Downtown revitalization
  • Building reuse
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Community Cultural Center

The Villages Folk School should be the foundation for a new cultural center that has the space to host the majority of the current Folk School Classes; neither Keosauqua nor Van Buren County have the capacity to support two similar yet independent organizations. The cultural center should expand the offerings beyond the more traditional classes, though. Based on community input, additional classes should focus on cooking, technology, crafting, and dance to begin.

Keosauqua benefits from outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities and historical sites. It also enjoys easy access to a wide variety of classes through the Villages Folk School. The School offers experiences in traditional arts and skills in rural settings. While the rural settings of the classes allow participants to experience village life in a simpler time, the dispersion of classes – currently numbering over 50 – creates challenges and sometimes limits participation.

The programming at the center should include a mix of offerings throughout the year and should vary in duration to accommodate all lifestyles. Some classes should be single sessions, while others should span multiple weeks. Sometimes, it will make sense for classes to be conducted as drop-in sessions, whereas others will require participants’ presence for a designated time frame. It should be noted that some existing fire arts offerings currently are slated to remain at their existing locations given the equipment needs for these classes.

In addition to offering classes throughout the year, the center also should offer summer camps. As laid out in the business plan in Appendix B, the camps should be offered multiple times over the summer to maximize participation. The camps should give participants a taste of the other classes offered at the center throughout the year, spurring interest and generating participant leads for these other offerings.

Of course, as the programs unfold and center staff better understand the demand for each offering, the classes and camps should be modified. Cultural center leaders should analyze class frequency, duration, and participation as a baseline. These should be supplemented with participant feedback. It will be imperative to continually modify and add new offerings if the center is to be successful in the long run.

The cultural center should be located downtown, ideally in a currently underused building. By locating downtown, more people will be drawn to Keosauqua’s main street, ultimately boosting existing businesses in the immediate area.

The space should include a couple of offices available for rent. A culinary space should be available for community use, and a classroom should also be available for rental when not in use by the center itself. The cultural center should be designed to host larger events, too, filling another expressed community need. Taken together, these rental opportunities represent nearly $9,000 in revenue for the center.

With nearly 60 classes and almost 10 camps, it will be essential for the center to have full-time staff members, including a managing director and administrative assistant. Cultural center officials and the Villages Folk School must work collaboratively to determine how existing staff transition to the cultural center and how any gaps are filled. The cultural center also should hire a marketing director on contract to assist on an as-needed basis.

The full programming slate and business plan for the cultural center can be found in Appendix B.

Action Steps

Define partnership with Villages Folk School

Villages Folk School leadership and cultural center leadership

Work to understand current successes and downfalls of existing program. Identify budgetary challenges and opportunities. Determine current and future staffing needs. Explore a variety of models, including a Memorandum of Understanding between the cultural center and Villages Folk School, forming a new nonprofit entity, or using the Villages Folk School, to oversee the cultural center.

Q1 2019

Secure building for cultural center

Villages Folk School leadership and cultural center leadership

Create scoring matrix based on example in Appendix C to rank desirability of potential buildings for cultural center. Prioritize available buildings using matrix. Engage owner of preferred building to share the vision for the cultural center; obtain owner buy-in and negotiate transfer of building.

Q2 2019

Design building layout and determine capital costs

Villages Folk School leadership and cultural center leadership

Work with architect to design building layout. Design spaces to meet a variety of needs, including classes, live music performances, wedding receptions, office needs, theater performances, etc. Determine costs associated with various elements.

Q2 2019

Launch capital campaign

Villages Folk School leadership and cultural center leadership

Seat capital campaign team. Create funding roadmap. Create pledge form and communications strategy. Secure contributions; be sure to build in operating costs for the first year.

Q3 2019

Complete buildout and launch programming

Villages Folk School leadership and cultural center leadership

Complete renovations of building and secure necessary equipment for various offerings. During construction process, share videos and pictures to generate community interest and excitement. Begin registering participants for classes and camps. Hold grand opening event. Continue regular marketing efforts.

Q3 2020

Downtown Revitalization

Downtown Keosauqua embodies small town America: It’s the place where everybody knows your name and passes by with a smile and a wave. To date, though, the community hasn’t capitalized on the uniqueness of this experience. There is no physical sense of place or feeling that you’ve arrived at a destination. Unless you’re a local, downtown Keosauqua is Anywhere, USA.

Fortunately, the foundations of a truly great main street are in place in Keosauqua. Small shops welcome residents and visitors alike. Historic architecture dots 1st Street. Perhaps even more importantly, Keosauqua residents are driven to capitalize on this foundation and transform their community.  

“Downtown is important because it’s the heart and soul of any community. If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you simply don’t have a healthy town.”

– Ed McMahon, Chair, National Main Street Center

The third tool that Keosauqua needs to pursue is the creation of design guidelines for downtown, perhaps as an overlay zoning district. The guidelines should focus on form rather than use, encouraging strong design and supporting both walkability and small businesses. The guidelines will position Keosauqua to be more proactive in that they will set the community on a particular path from the onset rather than reacting to individual proposals as they come in.

To boost this program, Keosauqua may consider creating a vacant building registry, which would require building owners to register their buildings. Keosauqua would need to define:

  • Registration requirements (e.g., when is a building deemed ‘vacant’?);
  • How the registration is structured and what fees, if any, are applicable, especially in terms of incentives;
  • Property inspection protocols; and,
  • How vacant building plans are developed.

An example from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning can be found in Appendix E.

The design guidelines adopted in Gloucester Village, Virginia, provide a model for Keosauqua. The guidelines are supplementary to other requirements specified in the zoning ordinance and building code and act as yet another means of creating the kind of community where people will want to live, work, learn, and play.

Implementation of these guidelines and the resulting sense of place will have a ripple effect throughout the entire community and the local economy. For instance, with a little charm and things to do, people will be more inclined to join their partners during hunting or fishing trips to the area, meaning more dollars will be spent locally and that more businesses – most of which are small and locally owned – will be supported. This money then will be recycled in the community, furthering the impact of these seemingly small steps.

The guidelines should be based on a “fix it first” mentality: Focus on maintaining what’s already in place, then on repairing, removing, and rebuilding. The last step in this process should be cosmetic enhancements to structures. As these guidelines are developed in Keosauqua, it will be essential to consider site elements (e.g., setbacks, parking areas, lighting, fences, utility screening, etc.), elements of the buildings themselves (e.g., doors, windows, roofs, ornamental elements, etc.), materials, and signage, which is a key concern for Keosauqua residents. The Gloucester Village design guidelines can be found in Appendix F.

A recurring theme throughout Iowa is the presence of dilapidated building stock. This is often a result of lack of pride, owners living in other states, and lack of funds; the funds required to maintain and enhance historic buildings can be daunting. Still, the presence of dilapidated buildings, especially on main street, tells visitors there is a lack of pride in the community and greatly diminish – or completely erase – the possibility of someone passing  through the community returning. By allowing dilapidated properties to exist in perpetuity, the City, in some ways, condones this behavior, ultimately diminishing values of both the property in question and adjacent properties.

To overcome this, Keosauqua must develop property maintenance standards, shifting maintenance from an option to a legal requirement, protecting and growing property values throughout the community while also protecting the health, safety, and welfare of residents.

Keosauqua should look to the City of Reno’s Downtown Property Maintenance Standards as a starting point. The Reno standards highlight several areas that will be key for Keosauqua:

  • Signs
  • Sidewalks and alleys
  • Lighting
  • Vacant buildings
  • Landscaping maintenance

The full City of Reno Downtown Property Maintenance Standards and the City of Corsicana (TX) Downtown Property Maintenance Code can be found in Appendix D.

Another major challenge for Keosauqua is the fact that some vacant buildings are not insured. While the buildings do not have the same risk exposure as occupied buildings, vacant buildings still may face structural damage from a fire, natural disaster, or vandalism. Additionally, someone may wander into or around a vacant property, get injured, and sue the building owner, leaving the owner financially exposed.

Keosauqua should adopt an ordinance that requires owners to maintain a minimum level of liability insurance on vacant properties. The added cost of this insurance may be enough to spur the owner to repair, rehabilitate, or otherwise remedy the situations on their property.

Keosauqua’s 1st Street is bookended on its southwest end by the new City Hall location, which is situated at the intersection of 1st Street and Highway 1. Moving northeasterly, the Keosauqua Public Library and the historic Twombly Building serve as anchors until reaching the other end of 1st Street, where the old creamery is located.

While simple beatification strategies – more street trees, benches, planters, etc. – would transform the experience along 1st Street, perhaps most impactful for downtown Keosauqua will be the creation of a number of updates and enhancements to the municipal code. Key tools will be the creation of property maintenance standards across the city, insurance requirements for all structures, and downtown design guidelines.

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Action Steps

Develop new codes and ordinances to support revitalization efforts

City of Keosauqua

Using City of Reno Downtown Property Maintenance Standards as a foundation, customize property maintenance standards to mesh with any existing codes and ordinances. Do the same for the insurance requirements and design guidelines; in this case, use the Gloucester Village guidelines as a starting point. Consider implementation and enforcement strategy for each; it is a waste of time to develop these if the City is not going to follow through. Ensure City staff has capacity to enforce the new codes and ordinances. If capacity does not exist, look at options, such as creating a shared position between the Van Buren communities or hiring someone on contract.

Q1 2019

Adopt new codes and ordinances

City of Keosauqua

Work through public input process. Hold appropriate votes. Ensure community members, especially potentially impacted building owners, understand the codes and ordinances.

Q2 2019

Enforce property maintenance standards, insurance requirements, and design guidelines


City of Keosauqua

Consider a grace period for property owners to show progress towards meeting codes and ordinances, but be sure this is a limited time. Be prepared to make frequent visits to properties in question, and be diligent in enforcing the new codes and ordinances. Any hesitancy will undermine the entire revitalization program and impede further progress. After six months of monthly penalties, send someone they know and trust to nudge the property owner and reinforce the community will help, to the best of its ability, find the money for the work.

Q3 2019

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Building Reuse

In smaller communities, it is not uncommon to find buildings along main street that are underused. Some are only partly occupied with offices, some are used merely for storage, and still others are vacant. This sends the message that the community is not a vibrant place where people want to be. It says to visitors and potential businesses that the community is not open for business.

Keosauqua is not unlike other communities in that it, too, has several underused buildings. However, the community is well positioned in that there is a pathway forward for key buildings along main street and that some property owners are interested in revitalizing their buildings.

Lee Family Properties

Keosauqua is a community under transformation. The forthcoming return of the Hotel Manning has pushed the community to address its housing needs, to recommit itself to supporting local restaurants, and to push for more amenities that will attract and retain talent. The three Lee family properties – located at 110 Main Street, 701 1st Street, and 705 1st Street – represent yet another catalytic opportunity for the community. With the appropriate investments, the three spaces are ripe for a mix of uses, including commercial/retail, community, and residential uses.

When the Lee family properties are revitalized, the buildings will be preserved while maximizing their use. Community members and visitors will experience enhanced amenities, and the investment in the properties will be a statement of the family’s love of Keosauqua. Additionally, the revitalization will open up a mix of revenue streams for the family, including potential tax benefits if any of the spaces are donated for use by a nonprofit. Most importantly, though, the reuse will be an economic development driver for the community – a regional opportunity to support entrepreneurs and small businesses while keeping (and drawing) money in the community and allowing residents to shop local.

Of course, the reuse of the Lee family properties will rely on broad support. The family will need to make the initial resource investments and partner with the City to make the enhancements. The City should offer financial incentives, and the Engage Keosauqua group should offer assistance in finding potential tenants for the buildings. FInally, larger employers, such as HillPhoenix and the school district, should partner with the family to develop potential housing components of the buildings.

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Action Steps

Conduct structural assessment of the three buildings

Lee family

Retain structural engineer. Determine required improvements to secure/preserve buildings. Work with engineer to prioritize improvements.

Q1 2019

Determine preferred ownership going forward

Lee family

Work with appropriate professionals, including attorney, financial advisor, and real estate professional/developer, to explore financial implications and  determine future ownership of the buildings. Does the family want to maintain ownership of the buildings? Should they be sold or leased?

Q1 2019

Work with local leaders to recruit potential occupants for the three properties

Lee family, chamber, Engage Keosauqua, business leaders

Prioritize moving small existing businesses out of homes into the downtown area. Consider how the community can play up its agricultural heritage, how the area Amish community can find a downtown presence, and how local artists might come together with a cooperative model. If the community need exists, also consider offices and/or a co-working space. If the cultural center does not find a home at the creamery, prioritize this demonstrated community need and desire for one of the buildings (ideally the property at 110 Main Street). Consider modern apartments/lofts for the upper levels. Explore partnership with school district and/or HillPhoenix to help address their housing needs and guarantee rental revenues.

Q2 2019

Work with local architect to design mixed-use solutions for each of the three buildings

Lee family, architect

It will be imperative to restore the facades to their former grandeur; there are a number of grants available to support this work. Determine other necessary capital expenditures for buildings and match these needs up with potential funding sources. If needed expenditures are significant, the family should phase in the building enhancements; in this case, focus efforts on one building, complete the improvements, get tenants in and paying rent, and then, as cashflows allow, begin making enhancements to other buildings.

Q2 2019

Keosauqua Creamery

As has been mentioned, a cultural center is a top community need and desire. It is a community development tool that will keep residents in the community and enhance their quality of life and also a tool that will draw visitors to the community, bringing with them new dollars to Keosauqua. The creamery presents an optimal space for the cultural center due to its location, size, and rich history.

If the creamery becomes a cultural center, preservation of the creamery will be taken to the next level. It will become both a functioning and historial space; in some ways, it will become a mini museum. The creamery will become a second crown jewel, along with the Hotel Manning, for Keosauqua. Together, the two will bookend the impending downtown revitalization. The creamery in particular will highlight the marriage between agriculture and history in Keosauqua. Like the Lee family properties, the creamery will function as an economic development driver in town, most notably as a space that celebrates the community’s arts, culture, and agricultural past, present, and future. Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the creamery becoming a community space, though, is the opportunity for different generations of community members to unite in a shared space, leading to stronger social connectivity in Keosauqua.

For this to be successful, it will take the collaboration of the building owner, the City, Van Buren County, Engage Keosauqua, and the Villages Folk School. The building owner will need to donate, sell, or lease the building, while the City and County will need to assist with financial incentives. The City also will need to help secure another building for storage purposes. Engage Keosauqua will need to take a leading role in the capital campaign, and the Villages Folk School will need to either partner with a new entity or support a new nonprofit in crafting and running cultural center programming.

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Action Steps

Explore various ownership models

Property owner, Engage Keosauqua

With current owner, explore various ownership models, including transfer of ownership and a long-term lease. Once a preferred path is decided, develop parameters that give current owner confidence in the future direction of the space.

Q1 2019

Determine fair market value of building

Property owner, Engage Keosauqua

If ownership is being transferred either through donation or outright purchase, determine fair market value of building. Transfer property or enter into an agreement that will lead to this transfer upon completion of capital campaign.

Q2 2019

Identify and secure another space in the community to place building contents

Engage Keosauqua, City

Work with local real estate experts and leverage local networks to identify potential buildings for storage use. Work to secure favorable deal and support building owner in moving contents of building.

Q3 2019

Design cultural center layout

Engage Keosauqua

Work with architect to design cultural center layout and to determine necessary capital expenditures. Be sure to consider the variety of uses for the space and make sure to build in flexible spaces.

Q4 2019

Establish capital campaign team and secure funds for cultural center

Engage Keosauqua

Determine capital and initial operating costs. Develop funding roadmap and prioritize asks. Be sure to explore grant opportunities. As campaign is coming together, consider naming opportunities for various donor levels.

Q1 2020

Develop transition timeline

Engage Keosauqua

Determine buildout and renovation timeline. If long-term lease, consider phasing in different areas of the building over time to ease the transition. As renovations happen, be sure to share them online; photos and videos are especially powerful. Work towards grand opening celebration.

Q3 2020

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With the implementation of the tactics outlined in this strategy, Keosauqua will be well on its way to a more vibrant future. Keosauqua will be better positioned to attract people to live, work, learn, and play in town instead of having them select nearby communities.

However, while the specific tactics and actions are laid out here, the successful implementation of this playbook will take sustained commitment from all in the community. It will require open, transparent leadership that is inclusive of all residents. It will require a new level of trust and collaboration across community groups. Ultimately, the success of Keosauqua will require new leaders to be engaged now and into the future on a regular basis. This group must be embraced by the current cohort of leaders, their ideas must be valued, and they must have meaningful opportunities to transform the community. Simply because something didn’t work in the past does not mean that it absolutely won’t work in the future.

In short, rural communities like Keosauqua are at a crossroads. If the community can come together to effectively implement this action plan — and ideas that arise in the years to come — in an open and inclusive manner, it will thrive into the future. The path has been laid out. Now, it’s up to the Engage Keosauqua team to live up to the group’s name. Go engage and inspire other Keosauquans. Rally them around the vision. Forge ahead and create a more vibrant future together.