Incentive program aims to revive West Des Moines district
By PATT JOHNSON
West Des Moines business owner Kelly Sharp wants to transform an empty retail space in Valley Junction into a rustic-chic wine and coffee bar featuring a white quartz stone bar, exposed brick walls and seating for 44.
Along with adding beautiful finishes to the 117-year-old building she owns the structure needs serious improvements to bring it up to city and safety codes and make it usable as a restaurant.
She is looking at about a $380,000 investment.
"It’s costly when you have older buildings to upgrade," Sharp said.
But Sharp and other historic West Des Moines business owners wanting to make changes have new options to help defray those costs.
An incentive program aimed at the city’s historic district is set to revive the look of the retail and commercial center and encourage new business to locate there, said business and city leaders. The city has committed $1 million to the fund the incentives, The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2nLrQk4 ) reported.
"Things are happening here," said Jim Miller, executive director of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation.
Miller wants to see the momentum continue. "Even if we have 10 buildings that have $30,000 to $50,000 in improvements, my gosh what a difference that would make."
Property owners looking to add retail, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and other uses face mounting costs to upgrade the buildings, some of which are 100 years and older.
Some need structural improvements, while others need new plumbing, electrical or fire protection, including sprinkler systems.
Others are just looking to add awnings and signage. And a few are looking to make major changes including adding or tearing down walls.
Owners may apply for up to $75,000 in no-interest loans to improve buildings used for commercial, office, industrial or mixed-use properties. Loans will be repaid through additional property tax generated by the improved property.
Eligible projects include new or replacement roofs, renovation of underused spaces, improvements to awnings or facades, additions and architectural or engineering fees.
A second fund also awards up to $75,000 in assistance to bring properties in compliance with health and safety regulations, including adding sprinklers; making buildings compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act; adding or upgrading electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems to code; adding grease tank equipment and others. This grant requires matching funds from property owners.
Applicants may request money from both pots. They are excluded from the program if they already are receiving assistance through a property tax rebate program the city implemented in September.
That program provides 100 percent property tax rebate over five years when property owners build or renovate vacant retail, office, mixed-use and industrial buildings in exchange for a $500,000 investment and five full-time jobs.
The new set of incentives will target smaller projects, the city said.
Sharp said her renovation plans for Vino 209 Wine Cafe are contingent on getting grants and loans from the city.
"This will allow me to take some under-utilized space and turn it into something," she said.
Her plan is to transform former retail space into a spot where shoppers and visitors can relax. Along with wine and coffee, Vino 209 also will serve cheese platters, sandwiches and desserts and offer a small party room.
Half of the 117-year-old building now houses her longtime Heart of Iowa Market Place gift shop, while the other half was home to an interior design business that recently relocated. The improvements also will increase the value of the building.
City development leaders are hoping the funds help spur more development in the historic district. The businesses must be in an area that stretches from Railroad Avenue, north to Vine Street and the blocks between Sixth and Fourth streets.
There’s also a sliver along First Street between Walnut and Railroad that is included, along with an area south of Railroad between 11th and Sixth.
"One of the things identified in the market plan for the district is to have more bars and restaurants," said Clyde Evans, director of community and economic development.
That requires more fire sprinklers and grease traps to be installed, he said. He also wants to see some unused or warehouse space on the upper floors of some buildings be renovated into residential spaces or offices.
"These funds are to help offset some of those costs," he said. "This area is where West Des Moines started and there’s a lot of attention there."
About 150 businesses operate in Valley Junction and the occupancy rate hovers at 90 percent.
Cindy Lane will apply for a $25,000 grant that will help her pay to add a new awning and tuck-pointing to her business Cindy’s Boutique at 114 Fifth St. "This will help the looks and the structure of the building," she said.
"I hope people will take advantage of the program," she said. Maintenance now will avoid more costly projects down the road, she said.
Miller said he knows of some of the business that plan to apply for the money including the owners of the Café Su who are doing a full interior renovation.
And the new owners of the former Wicker and the Works location are renovating the one-time car dealership building.
With so many potential improvements on the horizon, Miller said he’s not concerned that property and rental rates will climb so high that it pushes out small local businesses that are the essential and sustaining elements of Valley Junction.
"It’s a priority for us to not have that happen. Rents are still really affordable," he said.
The city has offered other incentive programs, including low-interest loans to Valley Junction businesses, but did have any takers, Evans said.
"There was a lot of red tape, and property owners just weren’t interested," he said. "Now there’s a different mix of property owners" who are interested in getting the city’s help with renovations, he said.
"This is a 2-year pilot program but it all depends on how quickly we run out of money," Evans said. "But that would give us a good reason to go back to the city council" for more money, he said.
The application deadline for the first round of incentives is April 12. Evans said he expects the city council to consider the applications at its May 1 meeting. The city will disperse left over money in a second round this summer, he said.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
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