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High hopes for streetscape to boost business climate in Highland Park


Highland Park, which is home to many family-owned and locally owned businesses, is approaching a crossroads. Business owners like Larry Arnold of Aqualand Pets Plus are finally seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” in the area’s long-drawn-out streetscape project, and are anxious to see what impact the project will have on drawing more foot traffic to the district and changing people’s perceptions about the neighborhood.

Bridget Montgomery, a neighborhood planner with the city of Des Moines, has spent the last five years working with Highland Park business owners on the streetscape plan. The basis for the project was to enhance the historic character of the neighborhood with improved infrastructure, including new sidewalks, vintage lighting, landscaping and more. After running in to some “stumbling blocks and redesigns along the way,” Montgomery said the project ought to be completed in the next 40 days, which is welcome news to business and property owners in the area, who have been inconvenienced by the traffic and parking disruptions caused by the construction.

“Getting enough money for the project has been a big roadblock,” Montgomery said. “Until you get it built, the prices just go up. Our initial cost estimates were outdated by the time we wanted to get started. We had to redesign the project and find new funding sources when we went over budget.”

Ed Fallon, who is the executive director of the 1000 Friends of Iowa organization, which has its office on the corner of Sixth and Euclid avenues, said he is “glad to see that it’s finally moving along.” Melinda Martinson, who owns the Hiland Bakery with her husband, Brian, said she will also be glad when the disruptions from the construction are finished, as they have had a negative affect on sales. Montgomery said she knows that the streetscape improvement project has tested the patience of those involved, which is why she has made efforts to step up the pace of construction when possible.

“Last year, when we found out that we would have to postpone it again, the city decided to put in the arch,” Montgomery said. “The city wanted to put forth a good effort to get it installed to show that we were indeed committed. Then, earlier this summer, we found out that we were going to be under budget, so we’ve actually been able to expand the project to include two new light fixtures, a new sidewalk and curbs.”

The arch, which spans over Sixth Avenue directly in front of Bill and Bibiana Wheeler’s Hiland Park Hardware Co., is the signature element of the project, Montgomery said. It is reminiscent of an arch that had been there during the 1920s, when Highland Park was an independent community, separate from Des Moines and full of small-town charm. Montgomery said she is impressed with the pride and commitment people such as the Wheelers have shown in seeing the project through.

“I think that any area could say that it is historic, but they are especially very proud of their history,” Montgomery said. “They want to see their area continue to flourish, and by improving the physical infrastructure, hopefully people will continue to improve their own businesses and start to fill some of the vacant spots.”

Bill Wheeler said he also hopes that the streetscape improvements will lead to other positive changes in the area. Highland Park is where he grew up. It’s where he wanted to return home to after serving in the Peace Corps. He says he saw a much different side of Highland Park back when he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, and he holds on to a vision of it being that way again.

“In the past, all the business owners lived in the neighborhood,” Wheeler said. “Well now, there are just a handful of us who actually own businesses here who live here. This area is like a springboard for young families. The people who we would want to stay are moving on, and that hurts the neighborhood.”

Wheeler said Highland Park’s reputation seems to have a lot to do with it. “Crime is not an issue here, although it’s perceived to be,” he said. One of the ways the business owners can work to combat this perception is by showing a shared commitment to improvement.

“The property owners need to start taking a look at our buildings and start beautifying those,” Wheeler said. “We have work to do on our own. The city, the county and the state have come forward and helped us with the streetscape project. Now it’s for us to say, ‘Let’s make our buildings look a little better so that when people look at the area, they won’t think about blight or crime or lowlife people hanging around.’”

Wheeler, Fallon and Montgomery all point to other parts of the city, such as the East Village and Drake, that had experienced tough times, and are now redefining themselves as business districts. Why, they ask, couldn’t this happen in Highland Park, too?

“The physical fabric in Highland Park is there,” Montgomery said. “With the right shops and people deciding that this is a neat place, something on that scale could happen.”

“We see how the East Village downtown has really bounced back and provided a great focal point for that neighborhood,” Fallon said. “I think that’s happening here in Highland Park as well. It’s always been a focal point, but I think there’s been some tough times and things are now bouncing back.”

Wheeler predicts that the change will come gradually. The Highland Park area may never be quite the same as it was when he was a boy growing up there, when most of his family’s shopping was done in stores between the Park Fair Mall and Highland Park, but the neighborhood can break free of its poor public image gain recognition as a viable place to live and do business.


Chuck’s Restaurant

Chuck and Elizabeth Bisignano started the business in 1956. It morphed from a bar into a small restaurant and then developed a reputation as one of Des Moines’ prime purveyors of Italian food. The couple’s daughter, Linda, started working in the family restaurant when she was 12 years old, and took over its management when her dad passed away in 1992. Linda’s brother Gary makes the homemade pastas and her cousin Sarah also helps run day-to-day operations.

Linda said she didn’t feel pressured into taking over the business, but that it just happened that way after she started working there and never stopped.

“Nobody in my family retires,” she said. “They stick with it until the end, and I plan to do the same. I am thankful that we have very loyal clientele to support us.”

Hiland Bakery

There’s a love story involved with this family-owned bakery, which was started in 1946 by Gus and Martha Martinson, who ran the business until 1978, when their son, Gary bought it. He sold it to his brother Brian in 1996. Brian has help from his wife, Melinda, who started working at the bakery when her family moved to Highland Park when she was 15. The couple did not marry each other originally, but joined together later in life. Combined, they have 50 years of experience working at the Hiland Bakery, Melinda said.

Gary and Brian continue to bake together, arriving around 3:30 a.m. Melinda decorates cakes. Brian and Melinda’s kids, Becky, Jeremy and Tim, also work there part time.

“The family is really proud of it, and they have a right to be, because it has stayed in the family since 1946,” Melinda said. “For Brian and me, it’s about all that we know how to do, so carry on with it.”

Hiland Park Hardware Co.

Bill Wheeler bought the store from his uncle 18 years ago. The business has stayed in the family for about 26 years, and history shows that the site has always played host to a hardware store. The store’s hardwood floors are original, but don’t show their age or wear, thanks to Wheeler’s care. He and his wife, Bibiana, run the store together.

Wheeler said Hiland Park Hardware Co. battles competition from big-box stores, but that glass-cutting helps drive his business. “People will come to me saying, ‘I’ve been everywhere looking for this.’ They intend it as a compliment, but when I know that they live just a few blocks away, I wonder why they didn’t just look here first,” he said.

Wheeler said people are also pleasantly surprised to find that prices at Hiland Park Hardware are about the same as what they would pay at its big-box competitors.

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