Like the motto of the historic Wilton Candy Kitchen, Wilton is very much “A Portal to a Sweeter Time.” Decorative red brick and white façade buildings line the downtown streets – a cheery reminder of the City’s past and harbinger of vibrant years to come.
Wilton is a small city of 2,839 residents, nestled among farmland halfway between the destinations of Iowa City and Davenport – each a 30-mile drive via Interstate 80. Often overshadowed by its larger, amenity-rich neighbors, the City found itself struggling to maintain an independent, authentic identity as well as an economic livelihood.
Wilton’s downtown district had once been its economic hub. Home to ornate buildings and two structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, much of downtown had fallen to disrepair. It was dropping business, challenged with deteriorating infrastructure and losing interest by the day.
The City hired MSA in 2014 to start the downtown revitalization planning process. The plan was built upon the existing strengths of the area, discovered new opportunities and addressed deficiencies to help re-create the lost identity of Wilton. Three overarching themes arose: Create a unique downtown district through landscape, streetscape and lighting design; improve access through the addition of parking, multi-modal amenities and ADA compliance; make downtown business-available by promoting new buildings on vacant lots, use of commercial space and introducing a thriving new economic culture.
Public engagement and participation throughout the creation of the plan was paramount to its success. It began with four Steering Committee meetings to identify potential project issues, conduct visioning exercises, examine existing downtown conditions and pursue redevelopment conceptual planning. Two general public meetings were also held to collect feedback from stakeholders, business owners, property owners and residents to collaboratively identify priorities and aspirations for the future of Wilton.
Many action steps included in the plan have already been achieved and many goals reached in a relatively short amount of time. One major step was the successful completion of the Wilton Downtown Façade Project. This project was awarded a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant from the State of Iowa in 2016 to rehabilitate 11 façades in the downtown district. The majority of the façade projects were completed in late 2018, and the City has since been actively recruiting new businesses to join the district. A refreshed new downtown personality is also taking shape, with hanging flower planters adorning every street light. The downtown has also been designated as a historic district, which is channeling in more funding opportunities, attention and “historic tourism” traffic.
Other action items from the plan that are currently underway or are planned future activities include: sidewalk and ADA-accessible improvements to the downtown district, a mural that has been commissioned to beautify the side of a formerly blighted building and a study of the Highway 38 corridor that will be paramount in developing the gateway into Wilton, encouraging non-residents off the interstate to explore all the city has to offer.
This is all positive, forward momentum and represents a promising outlook for the future sustainability of Wilton, a burgeoning community in the heart of eastern Iowa.