Poet Joyce Kilmer once wrote in one of his most famous works: “I think I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.”
But over the last few weeks, trees that would be lining the downtown Waverly area were the subject of intense debate at council chambers.
Last week, the council decided to hit the pause button on the streetscape project, seeking additional guidance from downtown merchants.
However, as a deadline approached for a grant from the Canadian National Railway, they had to take the subject up again Monday.
With statements from past and present Chamber of Commerce officials, the city’s vegetation management crew and even Mayor Adam Hoffman scouting another city with a recent streetscape change, the council eventually voted to approve the plans and an estimated cost of $240,000 for Waverly’s project on a 5-2 vote, with At-Large Councilman Matt Schneider and Ward 4 Councilwoman Heather Beaufore voting “no.”
Hoffman opened the discussion describing an experience in downtown Iowa Falls, where a similar streetscape was implemented. A waitress at a restaurant there told him,
“It was overdue for the community.”
“She didn’t comment on the effectiveness of the improvements but did state the price tag of the entire project was hefty for the few blocks that it affected,” Hoffman reported. “I found that the price tag was part of a $7 million project, similar to our Bremer Avenue project.”
He said he had received emails from community members, many of them prominent, some in support and others in opposition to the current plans.
Chamber Executive Director Travis Toliver said that Iowa Falls was an exchange community with Waverly last year through Main Street Iowa. Volunteers from each community went to the other to check out the atmosphere of each and fill out a survey of their impressions.
He said the Waverly visitors said Iowa Falls had a beautiful streetscape, while the bulk of those from Hardin County noted the lack of a streetscape in Waverly.
“(They commented) how beautiful it would be if streetscape would be implemented here in Waverly,” Toliver said.
Former Chamber Chairman Ryan Frerichs gave some of the past discussion over the streetscape project. He said much of the early discussion focused on how the community must take ownership of it.
“This is a not a waste of money, $240,000 is a lot of money, I get that,” he said. ”What you’re doing tonight, what you’re voting on, is an investment. It’s not a cost. This is what generates your taxes. This is what generates your experiences for your community members. This is what generates jobs. This is what amenities are.”
Current Chamber Chairman Don Meyer said that when surveys were sent in 2016, the project was met with mixed reviews.
“I think there have been some good adjustments made to alleviate some of those concerns,” Meyer said. “We want to be partners as a chamber in helping this project go forward.”
Steve Egli, who had led the chamber’s design and streetscape committees, said the town had been considering streetscape plans since 2012. He talked about a tree replacement program then for those trees that had grown so tall and bushy that they blocked signage.
“We were listening a long time ago to the people on main street and taking that into account and realized that we had a problem,” Egli said. “We had trees on main street going back into the ‘90s, and we didn’t know what we were doing.”
He added that there was a gap between when the chamber initially considered the streetscape to when it returned to it in earnest. The reason it was picked up was because of the Bremer Avenue project being taken up by the Iowa Department of Transportation.
“This is a very modest plan,” he said. “I think Ryan did a good job of explaining the costs that were involved and the amenities that we are talking about. These kinds of things are not cheap.”
Guest Councilperson Josh Gilbert did his own recognizance by going to downtown Decorah to get some opinions of that city’s streetscape along Water Street.
“Pretty much nobody thought that it increased any business,” Gilbert said. “Every one of them said that they had their own draw, which was the reason why they were able to survive the construction processes that they went through. They don’t really think they’re sharing too many customers.”
Schneider, the at-large councilman, said one of his qualms over the estimated expense of the project is that it could equal at least five individual salaries.
Hoffman believed there was due diligence by the city and chamber to get the necessary feedback from businesses since the previous meeting.
“Whether anybody feels that it was done quicker than what they thought it should have taken, that’s a matter of an opinion,” Hoffman said.
The reason for the quick turnaround was because the council had to take up a $25,000 grant from CN Railway and America in Bloom. The money would go toward purchasing and planting of the trees and plants as part of the streetscape project.
The grant is part of the railroad’s partnership with America in Bloom called “EcoConnections From the Ground Up.” Waverly was eligible because it is along CN’s rail lines.
The grant resolution passed unanimously.