In Altoona, What’s “Olde” is New

olde town

As the Altoona community begins to restore and revitalize Olde Town, businesses and developers are taking a fresh look at the downtown district.

Ask any Altoona resident what they like most about the community. Chances are, they’ll tell you it’s the “small-town feel.”

Not that Altoona actually is a small town. Over the past few decades, the city has grown from a dot on the map, a small agriculture-based community with a few thousand residents, to a growing city of more than 19,000.

Today, Altoona is home to a diverse range of industries—manufacturing, logistics, retail, data storage, and more. It also has a reputation as one of Iowa’s premier entertainment destinations. A few generations ago, the town didn’t have a single stoplight; now, about four million visitors flock to Altoona each year, drawn by major regional attractions like Outlets of Des Moines, Prairie Meadows, and Adventureland, as well as a large ecosystem of small businesses: boutiques, cafes, restaurants, a brewery, and unique, family-owned retailers.

And yet, even as Altoona’s residential population and regional popularity has grown, the community has managed to hold onto the charming, friendly atmosphere that makes it feel like a small town. This unique identity can be found anywhere in Altoona—local business owners often know their customers by name; neighbors host barbecues and block parties; community members keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening across town.

But there’s one corner of Altoona that captures this spirit best.

Welcome to Olde Town, a small-town main street in a not-so-small town

Walking down 2nd St. in Olde Town, Altoona’s historic downtown, you get the sense that you’ve been whisked back in time. It’s the classic Main Street USA. There’s the barber shop, the taphouse, the community theater, the Historical Society, and the Chamber of Commerce—a row of vintage buildings, each one with a unique architecture and a story to tell, in the shadow of an old cannery.

It’s just minutes away from Altoona’s bustling entertainment district. But, in terms of the atmosphere, Olde Town is a world away.

For decades, Olde Town has been one of the area’s best-kept secrets, but that’s about to change. Plans are being drawn to gradually transform the district, preserving and celebrating the area’s unique identity and small-town charm while also adding some modern touches, such as improved roads, better parking, walkable areas, greenspaces, outdoor dining, public artwork, and more.

The transformation, which is now being led by the Olde Town Business Association—in partnership with a number of local businesses and organizations, including the City of Altoona, the Altoona Area Historical Society, and the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce—is happening one step at a time. Currently, the City of Altoona is improving the roadways in the area, while the Business Association focuses on promoting events like Christmas in Olde Town and the seasonal Farmers’ Market. The Historical Society, meanwhile, is considering a number of actions, including renovating the current museum building, launching new events in partnership with local organizations, and possibly adding a retail and/or coffee shop to their location.

Although the project is still in its early stages, public excitement is growing over the potential of Olde Town, especially after some concept sketches imagined how the district might look in the near future.

Now, some businesses and developers are looking to Olde Town with fresh eyes.

What kind of businesses/developers are considering investing in Olde Town?

As the revitalized Olde Town begins to draw more crowds with cultural events and an improved streetscape, there’s an opportunity for new businesses to meet the demand. A recent survey of 580 Altoona residents found that locals are most excited about the prospect of the following categories of businesses moving to the Olde Town district:

  • Restaurants
  • Breweries
  • Coffee shops
  • Bakeries
  • Retail stores, particularly locally owned shops and specialty boutiques

One challenge of revitalizing Olde Town is the area’s low vacancy rate, which leaves businesses with few options for available space. While that’s currently a limitation for potential tenants, it’s an opportunity for developers to invest in new infill construction or adaptive reuse to accommodate the growing district.

In addition, there is currently land available in the area surrounding Olde Town. As the district grows and new businesses move into the downtown, this nearby land is an opportunity for developers to create spaces for commercial offices, which can host clients at downtown restaurants and attract employees with nearby amenities, as well as retail businesses, which will benefit from the anticipated increase in traffic.

What benefits or advantages does Olde Town offer?

Businesses and developers are drawn to Altoona’s Olde Town because it offers the benefits of both a small town and a larger city:

  • Olde Town has the charm of a historic district with a vintage look and a unique small-town identity.
  • Events like the Farmers’ Markets and the annual Christmas in Olde Town draw large crowds. Meanwhile, more events are in the works.
  • Altoona’s large residential population (19,000) is active in supporting local businesses.
  • The city has a booming retail market. In 2019, total taxable retail sales in Altoona were more than $650 million.
  • Each year, about four million visitors head to regional destinations less than two miles away, including Outlets of Des Moines, Prairie Meadows, and Adventureland. Altoona is also a 10-minute drive from downtown Des Moines.
  • By investing in the area, businesses and developers take an active role in the revitalization of a beloved district, as part of an initiative backed by the City of Altoona, the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce, the Altoona Area Historical Society, as well as a large number of local businesses and the general public. Businesses and developers have an opportunity to help lead the revitalization and build goodwill with the community.

To learn more about what’s happening in Altoona’s Olde Town, visit the Olde Town Business Association website or take a look at the Altoona Downtown Assessment conducted by the Iowa Downtown Resource Center, a division of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

To learn more about key business indicators and the benefits of doing business in Altoona, start here.