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Marion hopes artistic transformation of Uptown alley helps businesses

By KCRG9 | Updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2014 |

MARION — Most people don’t think much about alleys. But they’re doing a lot more thinking in Marion these days after the community won a $350,000 grant to make one Uptown District alley both more pleasing and more pedestrian friendly.

The program in Marion is called ImaginArt in the Alleys and it was made possible by a grant received earlier this year from ArtPlace in America. The money awarded to Marion was the 13th largest amount in the country. Marion is the first Iowa community to win an ArtPlace grant.

But there’s more to the efforts than just sprucing up a two-block long alley that runs between 10th and 12th Streets in the community’s Uptown District. The alley is immediately behind the main business district in Marion along Seventh Avenue and that’s where a long-awaited streetscape project is set to begin sometime in 2016. Construction work could close Seventh Avenue in front of those businesses for months. The hope is creating an attractive alley as a sort of pedestrian walkway and second entry to Seventh Avenue businesses will keep customers coming back during construction.

Karen Hoyt, art director for the project, led a group of Main Street Iowa staff on a tour of the Uptown on Wednesday concentrating on the “what if” possibilities with the alley transformation. Hoyt said the average person looking up and down the alley might see just a tangle of overhead power lines and dumpsters. But she can imagine what it might look like with an artistic makeover.

“We’re looking at ways art is infrastructure — it’s built into the environment. So we’re looking at amenities like artist-made benches, seating, bike racks, lighting and maybe decorative pavers in the walkways,” she said.

One of Hoyt’s jobs in overseeing the project is convincing about 33 building owners on Seventh Avenue and the surrounding streets to pay more attention to the backs and sides of buildings along the alley.

Jeanne Matthews needed no convincing. Matthews and her husband purchased the Memorial Hall building recently in the Uptown District and transformed the civil-war era building’s upstairs into an urban living space. But they’re also in the process of creating an art gallery and pub and outdoor beer garden on the lower level. The building runs along the alley and Matthews said her plans could benefit from a pleasing environment.

“We’re going to make the alley artistic and fun and a destination place where people will come to — kind of like a big adult playground,” she said.

Dori Patrick, who runs an art shop along the alley was also enthusiastic. “As an art studio, we’re really excited about turning the alleyways into exciting art and pieces of art. We’re hoping to slap art just about everywhere in Uptown Marion,” she said. Hoyt said businesses owners are excited about the possibilities.

Hoyt said she can’t really describe what the end result will be because organizers are still gathering ideas. But around the first of the year, she expects to put out a call to local artists to see their proposals for pieces of public art. The actual transformation from a common into an uncommon alleyway should start this spring.


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