China Wong wanted to be part of the frontier spirit that seemed to sweep streets lined with ratty buildings and a few elegant new structures when she made a return visit to Des Moines and the East Village several years ago at the urging of her parents.
Before taking a guided tour of the city, Wong was looking at anywhere other than her hometown as a place to launch a business. Chicago was in her sights, but she was drawn to the East Village and the can-do spirit among developers and business owners who were leading its transition into a chic urban neighborhood.
"I was really impressed with what was going on," she said.
In 2005, Wong opened Salon Spa W in the Soho building at 400 E. Locust St. She was the first retail tenant in the commercial and residential structure that was developed by Anthony DeAngelo and Robert Ligouri.
Since that time, the building's first-floor retail units have been 100 percent occupied. Business at Salon Spa W is brisk, even at 9 a.m., long before most retail shops in Soho are open, and the salon last year was named one of the top 100 hair and beauty salons in the country by Elle magazine.
Not bad for a graduate of Southeast Polk High School and Iowa State University who figured she would leave Iowa after receiving her college degree and make a few return visits to see family.
About four years ago, she told DeAngelo that she would like to buy space in the Soho building. In 2010 she married Des Moines native Joel Fortney, a portfolio manager for Principal Global Investors specializing in equities. At the time, he was not too keen on having a piece of commercial real estate take a spot in the couple's personal portfolio.
Times have changed. Wong and Fortney formed AJC Capital LLC and bought 5,000 square feet of commercial space, including the Salon Spa W suite, in late June, just a few days before their third wedding anniversary.
With the economy on the mend and interest rates low, "it has paid to wait," Fortney said.
Wong and Fortney had no problem finding a lender to help with the $650,000 purchase price. They shopped the deal to three or four banks, found them all to be willing, then settled on Bankers Trust Co. because of its commitment to being involved in the rehabilitation of Des Moines.
Terry Vorbrich, an economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines, guided them through the process of obtaining a $269,000 U.S. Small Business Administration loan and also filled them in on the history of the East Village.
The couple hope to expand their property acquisitions east of the Des Moines River. They are keeping a keen eye on business growth and property development spurred by the extension of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway east of the river.
"We're listening ..." Fortney said. "And learning," Wong added.