It Makes a Village
Compiled by Carol Bodensteiner
Lorraine Williams has been on a mission. Make that two missions. For nearly a decade as the proprietor of Café Dodici in Washington, Williams has aspired to delight customers with a creative cuisine that is both healthful and delicious. She’s also set out to make the southeast Iowa county seat a destination community.
Both goals seemed out of reach when Williams returned to her hometown in 2003 after living in Italy for 27 years. She was dismayed by the sleepy community with its deteriorating town square. “I had such wonderful memories from my childhood,” says Williams. “I wanted to bring this town back to life.”
Williams soon made what many thought was an outrageous bet on Washington’s future: She decided to open a high-end restaurant in a dilapidated but historic building on the town square. With the help of an SBA loan, she gutted the building and restored it to its original design. Café Dodici opened in late 2004.
Her decision proved to be a powerful catalyst for the community of 7,000. Within a year, two art historians bought and restored the old J.C. Penney building to house the Chamber of Commerce and several retail shops. Another old building was converted into retail and residential space. The Washington Library, in need of more space, began planning for a move downtown. With renewed energy behind social and economic issues, the Chamber of Commerce applied for Main Street status, achieving that designation in 2008. Around the same time, the Downtown Enhancement Project, in which Williams was a key player, implemented a multimilliion-dollar plan to improve the Washington streetscape.
According to Amy Vetter, director of Main Street Washington, none of this could have happened without Williams’ passionate commitment to the town. “She was the first to come in and do something — and without having any of the financial incentives that the city and Main Street now provide.”
Washington is on its way to becoming the vibrant community Williams envisioned. More than 85 percent of Café Dodici’s customers come from out of town, and the suite of guest rooms above the restaurant is booked regularly. Williams chuckles as she recalls the Illinois couple that has celebrated Valentine’s Day in Washington for the past four years. “It’s way more than just the food.” — M.G.Photos courtesy Craig Swift