Our Town: Downtown Washington’s success expanding outside the Square

Our Town Washington has spent two decades preserving its downtown
Published: Jul. 10, 2023 at 6:36 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, Iowa (KCRG) - Renovations of the former Winga’s Restaurant on Washington Square may be completed in October with a full opening in the Spring of 2024.

“It’s not going to be Winga’s anymore, you know. It will be our own version of it with a totally different name,” said Isabella Santoro, a co-owner of the new Northside Diner which is being renovated by Isabella and her husband Edward.

“So I’m getting close to two years now,” said Edward Santoro.

The Santoros are investing a lot of sweat and equity in the old Winga’s Diner, a place that was a mainstay on the Square until it closed in 2006.

The renovations have been extensive, with layers of drywall and false ceilings removed by hand.

“I love to see the old buildings kind of brought back to some semblance of their glory,” said Edward Santoro.

“Lots of windows, lots of natural light, you know, kind of that grand sense that you kind of get when you get in, you know, with the woodwork and, you know, and all of these things.”

“It’s just that sense of history. And, you know, maybe for the next generation, you know, to see something like that, and you know, think, ‘Well, where did it come from?’,” said Edward.

Renovating a downtown building is in Isabella’s blood.

Her mother is the driving force of Cafe Dodici

“I have this visionary problem, I can see the future and I had dreamt about this town and how to renovate it,” Lorraine Williams said.

She opened Cafe Dodici 19 years ago when she says downtown was desolate.

“The restaurant was an idea I came up with to bring people to the community, and it worked,” she said.

She said at the beginning, 80% of her clientele came from out of town.

Now, she says it’s 50/50.

But she says Washington cannot rest on its laurels.

“We have to stay very vigilant,” she said. “We have to be sure that we take care of our merchants.”

And that means making sure the businesses in downtown Washington keep the character of the building.

“People move to downtown because they love it and not necessarily because it is easy,” said Samantha Meyer, executive director of Main Street Washington.

“But you really, really have to want to be here and love what you do because these buildings are not new and they take a lot of investment.”

Main Street Washington has different grant programs to help facilitate projects to match some of the money being used for revitalization.

But it’s not just the Square that is getting attention.

“We have to grow outward and that’s a great problem to have but we also want it to look like it’s a part of downtown,” she said.

Meyer said the organization is making sure the businesses surrounding downtown help make it appealing to come to downtown, tying both areas together.

It’s part of a partnership where downtown businesses are making sure their neighbors succeed.

Cafe Dodici and Northside Diner can work together to build a stronger Washington.

“Oh, it’s not really competition,” Lorraine Williams said of her daughter’s new restaurant.

“Sometimes I’m sad if we’re too busy to seat people. I don’t know where else to send them.”

And Isabella Santoro said her business wants to pay respect to the history of the Square in Washington.

“We want to give our respect to all the history, of the family that ran it all those years, and all the memories that people have with it, but it’s also time to start new memories and just give it a new life.”