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Destination shops like Mara help create a diverse downtown in Charles City

  • Mara Bridal Boutique employees Kayla Kellogg and Kathryn Fox take a quick break to pose for a photo on Thursday. (Press photo James Grob.)

  • Mara Bridal Boutique in Charles City. (Press photo James Grob.)

  • Mara Bridal Boutique in Charles City. (Press photo James Grob.)

By James Grob,

Tiffany Rottinghaus saw her vision come to fruition almost exactly three years ago.

Her business, Mara Bridal & Special Occasion Boutique in Charles City, opened in November of 2017. Her plan was to outfit people for weddings, balls, special events and proms, offering “high quality products, but still very comfortably priced.”

All along, Rottinghaus has said she hopes to inspire others to open businesses in Charles City and continue to cultivate a downtown that brings people to the area.

“I love this town,” she said. “I’m from a river community, Prairie du Chien, so I know what it’s like to live in an area where tourists are a big driver, and you need them to keep the wheels spinning in a town like this.”

While the offering of formal wear has proven to be successful, Rottinghaus has made adjustments to what her shop offers, and to how she offers it. After observing trends and communicating with customers, Mara now offers casual clothing for women, including jeans, sweatshirts and business attire.

“It’s a nice resource for local people to have,” she said. “It started with more dressy attire for attending a wedding or funeral or graduation, and as COVID hit, we had to transform our model. We also needed to carry more sweatpants and other casual wear, because that’s what people are wearing these days.”

Other adjustments directly related to the COVID-19 epidemic include expansion of Mara’s online store for virtual shopping and offering curbside pickup.

“For any business, it’s important to be diversified,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s where our multi-tiered offering comes from.”

Rottinghaus stressed that bridal and formal wear are still Mara’s core business. She said it’s a destination-type product, so people from Cedar Rapids, Ames, Austin, Rochester, Decorah, Clear Lake, Algona and other cities hundreds of miles away drive to the store to shop for wedding dresses and wedding attire.

“Then they’ll shop my casual wear, but then they’re ready to shop for something other than clothing,” Rottinghaus said. “So I send them to Otto’s, or Rustic Corner or Darby and all the different shops that get them on our main street.”

Being a part of a network of downtown stores has been part of Rottinghaus’s goal all along.

“They’ll have lunch at The Pub or a beer at the brewery,” she said. “They end up spending the whole day here, and they make future day-trips out of coming to Charles City.”

Rottinghaus said that she loves the idea that Charles City has several businesses that add vibrancy and selection to its main street, but it doesn’t happen without local customers.

“We need to not just have one store in Charles City, we need to be able to have several, and we can’t do that without our local people coming in our doors every day,” she said. “Those are our employees, our friends, our neighbors. We’re funding their kids’ sporting and school events — we want to be in this together to make this community awesome.”

Rottinghaus said that with thousands of different media online and elsewhere screaming for attention, it’s difficult for local businesses to get heard through all the noise.

“We need to let people know, hey, we have that, too,” she said. “You don’t have to go to Amazon, you don’t have to travel to Waterloo, you don’t have go online for all these things. You can drive down the street, and we’ll wrap it up for you. It’s going to be special and unique and your money is going to stay in your community.”

Rottinghaus said that communicating that information locally is becoming increasingly important.

“I think everybody in our community would want to support our local stores, if they knew that we have the things that solve their problems,” she said.

She said that business in a small community like Charles City is often about building relationships with customers.

“All of these people in town have put their lives into owning these small brick-and-mortar shops, and they want nothing more than to have someone come and value what they’ve put their passion into,” Rottinghaus said.

She said that while earning a good living is the primary goal of any business owner, community responsibility also plays an important part.

“Yes, you’re doing it for money, but there is something altruistic about it,” Rottinghaus said. “You’re doing it because you want to create this small-town, main street shopping community.”

Rottinghaus said that every dollar spent locally — whether it’s at a shop like hers, or at a hair salon, or an auto mechanic or anything else — contributes to making Charles City a more vibrant community.

“If you don’t support that, it’s going to go away,” she said. “When you do support it, you make it stronger and better.”