ISU professors, CHS entrepreneurship classes making over four Elkader businesses

AMES, Iowa -- A pair of Iowa State University apparel, educational studies and hospitality management (AESHM) professors and their students are attempting to revitalize rural Iowa downtowns one community at a time.

Associate Professor Linda Niehm and Professor Ann Marie Fiore and 22 ISU students from their AESHM 474-574 "Entrepreneurship in Human Sciences" classes have made Elkader -- a northeastern Iowa community of some 1,500 residents -- the latest of nearly 20 rural Iowa communities for which they've developed business makeover plans. It's all part of a Main Street Iowa and Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) funded-initiative.

The ISU students and faculty are in Elkader through Tuesday making branding modifications, merchandising makeovers and marketing recommendations on four downtown businesses -- Treats Etc. (coffee and treats house); Willow Creek (wine and garden); Holly's Bridal; and Moser's Family Pharmacy.

The trip to Elkader culminates a year-long project that began last fall in studio sessions with officials from IDED's Main Street Iowa Program. This semester, students in this dual listed graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship class were grouped together in teams of five, assigned one of the businesses, and given $1,500 to both design business plans and make some of the recommended changes to the businesses. Owners from the four Elkader businesses came to ISU earlier in the semester to consult with the students, who also made a site visit to Elkader on Feb. 12.

"In earlier classes, we had worked with communities to re-brand businesses primarily in a consulting capacity, where we would design business plans but it would be up to the owners to carry them out," said Niehm, who earned this year's Rossmann Manatt Faculty Development Award from the College of Human Sciences for her scholarship, teaching and service. "But now we've assigned an implementation phase of the project. That mainly reflects re-branding the businesses through physical changes, such as changes to store fronts and interior designs, signage, menus, marketing materials, etc. This is really seeing this class project go full-circle."

"Each team had to develop a business proposal which included business, competitive and experiential strategies designed to enhance the firm's competitiveness and implement the ideas," said Tessa Lally, a senior AESHM student from Charter Oak, Iowa. "We're implementing those ideas in this trip, where we will pretty much re-do the store and make it more visually appealing."

Some of the student changes call for creating a space with a French provincial kitchen theme, with an entryway to a wine cellar at Willow Creek. They also plan to update the storefront, do some accent painting, and use some 30 yards of new fabric to frame a previously open area in Holly's Bridal

While each team received $1,500, Fiore reports the entire Elkader project has a budget of $19,400, which includes contributed time by Main Street Iowa staff and ISU faculty. And this week's work by ISU students is also just the start of what they hope will be revitalization plans for the community.

"Our hope is that the local Main Street Project managers, in partnership with the Des Moines office, can work with these businesses and local contractors to see the value in fully implementing changes within the community," Fiore said. "Some of the businesses are apprehensive of the physical changes that we recommend, but this is a whole new concept we're bringing to Elkader that might make these businesses more attractive to younger audience. And there is a lot of potential for beautiful retail spaces within this community to complement the picturesque natural setting."

Students doing work on Elkader businesses will present their plans as part of the fifth annual CHS Entrepreneurship Showcase on Thursday April 30, in LeBaron Lounge, Lobby and Auditorium, from 6-8 p.m. Students will present plans in two competitive areas -- start-up business ventures and existing business enhancements, with awards being presented at 7:45 p.m. The CHS Showcase is open to the public and all are invited to attend.