Welcome to Wellman

Downtown assessment finds the good, the bad, and the quirky

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 7/5/24


It takes guts for a city to subject itself to a downtown assessment by the Iowa Downtown Resource Center (IDRC). When the professionals come in, they don’t pull any punches, and that …

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Welcome to Wellman

Downtown assessment finds the good, the bad, and the quirky



It takes guts for a city to subject itself to a downtown assessment by the Iowa Downtown Resource Center (IDRC). When the professionals come in, they don’t pull any punches, and that means city planners need to have a thick skin.

The city of Wellman subjected itself to such scrutiny on Wednesday, June 19 as part of “The Power of the Sign” forum held at City Hall. The city was one of four chosen to host the forum, to which community leaders throughout the state were invited to learn how to optimize the use of signage in their downtowns.

Why Wellman?

“Part of the reason why we wanted to come here was, here’s a city that really stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to buy this building for a buck [the Starbeck-Miller building] and we’re going to invest the money that we were going to tear it down with and ask, Is anybody interested in applying for this Catalyst Grant?’ And it worked,” Jim Thompson, Downtown Economic Development Specialist, said.

The city is proud of how the historic building turned out. Spearheaded by Patrick and Karmen Cady, the half-million-dollar rehabilitation project resulted in a new retail business on the lower level and an Airbnb rental unit on the upper level. A state Community Catalyst Building Remediation Grant and $100,000 from the City of Wellman helped make it happen.

On the downtown tour led by Mayor Ryan Miller and City Administrator Kelly Litwiller, the retail shop, Simple Happiness, elicited complements from attendees. “Gorgeous,” and “I wish they were open more,” were comments people made.

Other aspects of the downtown attendees liked: the great burgers at Bender’s Bar & Grill, the cool clock in the park, and the fact that the city has its own grocery store, “a huge asset.”

There were features visitors were not so keen on, however: the empty storefronts, weeds in front of businesses, and the use of vinyl siding on brick commercial buildings.

In addition to the tour, the morning portion of the forum was dedicated to a review of the purposes, types, and best usage of signs in a community. Ben Muldrow, a graphic artist and partner at Arnett Muldrow in Greenville, South Carolina, led the session, and community leaders, including Cole Smith (City Administrator of Riverside), Tonia Poole (Director of the Kalona Chamber of Commerce), and Mary Audia (Executive Director of the Washington Economic Development Group), asked questions pertaining to specific issues that concerned them.

The afternoon portion of the forum began with the IDRC’s official assessment of Wellman’s downtown. Muldrow went storefront by storefront with their assessment, from the arrow sign on Highway 22 pointing to downtown to the stop sign at the end of 8th Avenue.

The Good

On the list of what Wellman got right: the 20-year-old mural that forms a backdrop behind the mini park located at 8th Avenue and 3rd Street. From the plaques and signage in the park to the standing clock, this space is a “big, big win,” with “so many good things going on,” Muldrow said. He was “blown away” by how well the mural had aged and said that “the message that [the space] sends is great.”

Another outstanding asset: Rick Schickerling and his business, JFH Metal Signs & Fabrication.

“This dude’s awesome,” Muldrow said. “He was one of the sweetest people I think I’ve ever met,” adding that he has “a spirit about him where he just seems happy.”

Schickerling’s signs can be found throughout downtown: he has fabricated those of the library, the Wellman Heritage Museum, Cilino’s Italian Restaurant, Jo & Co, the Powell Building (where he also created the awning) and Simple Happiness (where he also fabricated the staircase).

As you notice them, “you start to realize the impact that a single person with a decent sign-making capability and sense of style can make,” Muldrow said. “He does some really, really interesting cuts. I love the use of texture and layers. Those make a lot of difference in the quality.”

The Bad

Not everything in Wellman is awesome, and city officials are aware of that. One not-so-great sign: the “brown on brown” arrow pointing to downtown from Highway 22. This sign was the butt of one of the IDRC’s opening jokes: “Jim told the story that he has driven past Wellman his whole life and didn’t know downtown was here.” The nearly invisible arrow is scant help.

Muldrow suggested other ways the city might point to downtown in addition to signage: painting crosswalks, which “visually says this is a place where pedestrians exist,” and putting banners on the downtown side of Highway 22 only, so “you see color and movement, and you feel like you’re passing by something interesting.”

Muldrow had suggestions for most of the storefronts downtown, including Bender’s Bar & Grill. In this case, it is likely the storefront presentation is deterring customers.

“The big thing here is that you’ve got a sign that’s just really old,” he said. “When you have a sign that starts to degrade like that – if you live here and you know that the burgers are killer, you don’t care what the sign looks like, but if you’re a visitor to the community, you’re making a judgement. ‘Bender’s is open, but if they put the same care into their patty that they put into their sign. . .’”

Muldrow also took issue with the board and batten metal on the storefront, which he was sympathetic to given state rules and regulations.

“In Iowa, you’re not allowed to watch people drink a beverage or have a good time,” he joked. “We don’t want you to have the real Natural Light until you get inside.”

IDRC’s suggestions for Bender’s: a new sign that stretches all the way across the storefront, and perhaps an awning to provide shade and break up the storefront.

The Quirky

Some of Wellman’s features are just plain quirky. One that drew attention from both attendees and the IDRC professionals was “that weird building with the circle windows.” Mayor Miller explained that the now-vacant storefront used to be a laundry mat and a barbershop; someone suggested it would work well for an optometrist. Another referred to it as “the owl.”

“I really, really like this building,” Muldrow said as people giggled. “I get to travel all over the country. I don’t recall seeing something that style, and it’s really, really interesting.”

“You can imagine how cool it would be to walk by and see an old-school barbershop in there,” he continued. “That’s cool, and it makes total sense.”

What made a lot less sense to Muldrow was the one-way section of street downtown.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a downtown with a single-block one-way,” he said. “You drive down 8th, its two-way traffic. The one dense block is one-way traffic, and then it goes back to two-way traffic.”

The effect of that one-way was unfortunate on Muldrow as a visitor, whose GPS directed him down 9th instead of 8th when he was in search of downtown.

“So then I get down, and I take my left-hand turn, and I see the only Do Not Enter sign in all of town,” he said. “So it’s like I’m greeted by a message saying, Here’s our downtown. You overshot it, and you’re not allow to enter.”

Not exactly an invitation to discover what Wellman has to offer.


The forum concluded with a review of how cities should structure sign ordinances and develop incentive programs for downtown business signs.

And what will the City of Wellman do with the feedback they received from the IDRC?

One of their priorities is to determine how to best use the lot recently purchased on 8th Avenue and Highway 22 to direct traffic to downtown businesses, so an upgrade to the brown arrow may be in the works.

“We are looking at doing some downtown renovations with a Street Scape project, so this workshop was great for us,” Litwiller told The News.

How the IDRC’s assessment translates into strategy for a fresh look downtown will likely be the taken up by city staff and council in future weeks.

“You’re always going to get the town you deserve,” Thompson said at the close of the forum. “When you love your town, it shows every time.”

We look forward to seeing the love.

Wellman, Iowa, downtown assessment, Iowa Downtown Resource Center, IDRC, Power of the Sign, forum