Better Bathrooms Allowed Nightlife to Reinvest in Their Business and Welcome Patrons

A first of its kind bathroom renovation grant for nightlife businesses

The Iowa City Downtown District launched Better Bathrooms in July of 2021, a new initiative encouraging late-night bars & restaurants to renovate and elevate their bathroom spaces through a 50/50 matching grant. After delays from contractors to supply chain the awarded renovations our wrapping up.

The program managed by Nighttime Mayor, Joe Reilly, had been “an idea that has been over a year in the making”, says Reilly. “In numerous conversations with visitors to Downtown, friends, colleagues and business owners, the reception to the idea was overwhelmingly positive and a ‘no-brainer’. But to my knowledge no entity or improvement district has ever done a program like this.” This program asked applying late night businesses [operation hours past 10pm] to make an assessment or estimate on the scope of work they are wanting for their bathroom spaces and work towards the 5 categories of improvements laid out in the application.

Lighting Improvements – Create spaces that are inviting but also improves places where visibility is key like sinks and mirrors

Cleanliness Efficiencies/Automations/Accessibility – Reducing water tracking, touch points while updating latches, accessories, and clearances.

Visuals – Underwhelming visuals and design can impact customer satisfaction and business reputation negatively. Elevate the space with paint, tile, accessories. Avoid dark colors that absorb the light rather than contribute to the overall lighting.

Durability – Replacement of materials or fixtures to refresh after wear or to be more resistant to wear, vandalism. Walls, partitions, etc.

Privacy – Creating small spaces of public solitude through functioning partitions and doors as well as spaces that do not require a patron to identify.

This program addresses trends and observations of customer ‘turn offs’ in nightlife,” says Reilly who first got inspired to develop this program after attending the Sociable City Summit breakout session titled “Women in Nightlife” in early 2020 presented by Responsible Hospitality Institute. “The bathroom experience can make or break a woman’s experience in a bar, club or restaurant. If the bathroom is dirty, unstocked or feels unsafe, she may avoid that business altogether,” states Alicia Scholer, Vice President, Responsible Hospitality Institute, who conducted focus groups in the U.S., Canada and Mexico about women’s socializing preferences. Upon months of conversations and research post conference, Reilly found out this feeling wasn’t limited to just women visiting Downtown. “I had male friends who would actively avoid certain businesses if it was suggested they visit.” he says, “Even to the extent that one friend would use their access to an adjacent business’s facilities if they were forced to dine and drink at a particular establishment.”

The conversations leading up to Better Bathrooms had struck a chord with prospective applicants as well. Brian Rorris, Owner of Quinton’s Bar & Deli, said he “never thought he would be so happy to hear the news” when Reilly called started gauging interest from businesses if a program like this existed in Downtown. “It is something that has been on my list, but had to be put to the side in 2020” says Rorris.

ICDD set aside $30,000 in 50/50 matching renovation funds and has two tiers of awards.

A Little (tier one) (50% from business, 50% from ICDD up to $3,650) and likely a single use bathroom or minor updates. –Applicants for this grant were required at minimum to address 3 different categories of their choosing from the first section of each of the 5 main categories [Lighting, Cleanliness Efficiencies/Touch Point Reduction/Accessibility, Visuals, Durability and Privacy].

A Lotta (tier two) (50% from business, 50% from ICDD up to $6,650) more likely a multi stall bathroom or major updates. –Applicants for this grant were required at minimum to address one item from the first section of each category [Lighting, Cleanliness Efficiencies/Touch Point Reduction/Accessibility, Visuals, Durability and Privacy]. .

The program has spurred $60,000 in private investment from the businesses and $30,000 from the Iowa City Downtown District.

Applications were reviewed by a committee of Downtown stakeholders speaking to design and construction, public safety advocacy and nightlife vibrancy. Here are the award applicants and their thoughts since completing their renovation:

Elray’s Live & Dive Women’s Room Upstairs

“(It’s)Very, very positive. It was a complete transformation and customers & staff really appreciate that we invested in our restrooms for their benefit.”

-Bob Franklin, owner

Sports Column Women’s Room North

“I thought the program was a huge success and very helpful to us. We have received many compliments from women regarding our dramatic improvement in the bathroom.”

-Billy Bryce, Co-Owner

Pint’s Men’s Room

“While getting materials took longer than planned due to supply chain issues, we are glad it is finally complete! We are receiving positive comments and the divider is a huge hit!”

-Kim Meek, Co-Owner

Quinton’s Men’s Room

“All the feedback has been extremely positive. When we have visitors that come from out of town they always comment how the bathrooms are unrecognizable and how much nicer they are. Also, with the new improvements, we have seen a dramatic decrease in vandalism and graffiti. Overall, we cannot stress enough how positive the better bathrooms program was for our business.”

-Brian Rorris, Owner

Gabe’s Women’s Room Ground Floor

“Over the last few years, no one had any money, so the grant was very helpful for that. The application process was helpful guiding the design while still maintaining our music venue roots.”

Pete McCarthy Co-Owner

Reilly acknowledges Better Bathrooms speaks to ICDD’s strategic initiatives of maintaining a district that is clean, safe and vibrant. “We wanted our bars and restaurants to welcome patrons and this grant was one of the many tools to help accomplish that for the businesses and the perception of the district as a whole.”