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Valley Junction at a crossroads


At noon on Sept. 27, the doors to Rick Mosley Hair, an upscale salon and spa that has been a fixture in Valley Junction for 13 years, will close.

Owners Rick and Stacie Mosley aren’t quitting the business. Far from it. An analysis found that most of their customers live in the western suburbs. So on Sept. 30, the couple will open a new salon in a loft-style space at a growing collection of trendy shops on the northwest corner of 128th Street and University Avenue in Urbandale.

The Mosleys’ departure is a blow to Valley Junction. Their salon had a roster of middle- and upper-income patrons who frequently lingered in the area before or after their appointments, spending money at restaurants or in stores.

Some say their exit, though regrettable, is part of the normal churn of the business cycle. Others argue it is emblematic of larger issues the historic district faces.

As evidence, the Mosleys and others point to a number of businesses that have recently closed or moved, a growing number of competing retail districts in Greater Des Moines and a possible shift in consumer tastes away from the folksy image Valley Junction has cultivated.

“The reason that this area has been so successful in the past is because there were shops here that were unlike anything else in the metro area,” Stacie Mosley said. “Now, you can go to other places and find those same boutiques, galleries and restaurants.”

The changes come as the Valley Junction Historical Foundation, the area’s marketing organization, searches for a full-time executive director to succeed banker Frank Hutchens. Hutchens, who has long been affiliated with Valley Junction and was honored earlier this year as the area’s volunteer of the year, took over as head of the organization temporarily in June after J.D. Mullen resigned amid allegations that he had exposed himself to women.

So far, the changes have been most pronounced among women’s clothing stores. Zoey’s closed over the summer. Dressings on 5th shut down earlier this year. K. Michelle moved to The Shops at Roosevelt, a shopping complex on 42nd Street in Des Moines that has become more upscale.

“Valley Junction is going through some major changes right now,” said K. Michelle Buxton, owner of K. Michelle’s. “The draw mainly there now is art galleries and antique stores. What do women do? They shop. And you don’t have any women’s clothing stores. So you don’t have any women going there.”

E. Claire & Co., a high-end store for dog and cat lovers that had operated in Valley Junction for 3 1/2 years, will close in November.

To be sure, not all of the business closures are the result of relocations or poor prospects in Valley Junction. The slower economy shares part of the blame. In the case of E. Claire & Co., owners Jill and David Neidig are leaving Central Iowa because David, an anesthesiologist, accepted a new job near Cincinnati.

Still, Jill said that her business’s sales have been hurt in recent months by the opening of a PetSmart store in Urbandale and by customers turning to the Internet to purchase pet supplies.

Pressure from national chains is sure to increase next August when Jordan Creek Town Center opens. Besides containing a traditional two-story enclosed mall, Jordan Creek promises to create the feel of an outdoor retail village where customers stroll along sidewalks between stores, restaurants and other businesses. A large man-made lake will add to the effect.

“People have got to ask themselves, do they want a big-box store, or do they want to sit in front of a computer?” Neidig said.

Building owners in Valley Junction say that businesses are taking longer to change hands than in the past and that spaces available for rent aren’t being leased as quickly as they once were.

It took months to sign a new business for the space E. Claire & Co. occupies. It will be replaced by a used-book store that will offer coffee and pastries. Three Dog Bakery, another dog-oriented business in Valley Junction, was sold in May after spending more than a year on the market.

That is dramatic shift. When Neidig opened her business, she was the first on a waiting list of six people who were eager to open shops in her current space.

“Right now, we have some vacancies that have been on the market for a while,” said Betty Hill Swander, who owns The Theatrical Shop and 19 other properties in the area. “Hopefully that will change quickly.”

Des Moines’ East Village is growing as a competitor to Valley Junction, some business owners said. The area has long been known as a gritty hangout for artists, the city’s homosexual community and young music lovers.

Now, it is gentrifying. The Capitol View lofts opened a year ago. Developers are planning apartments and condominiums for the former Dewey Ford auto dealership. Businesses, including banks, attorneys and the Blood Center of Central Iowa, have moved in.

Basil Prosperi, a restaurant and caterer relocated to the East Village in the past year. Eden, which sells bath and beauty products, recently opened on East Grand Avenue.

“The East Village is becoming the new Valley Junction,” Mosley said. “They’re catering to some of the cooler restaurants and more of an artsy crowd. If that’s where Des Moines is headed, then it’s getting away from the more folksy feel of Valley Junction.

All of these trends are putting pressure on the Historic Valley Junction Foundation to choose wisely when it picks an executive director, which it hopes to do by the end of the month, Hutchens said.

The group, which has been accepting applications for the job for about three weeks, is trying to hire someone with more business experience than past directors have had.

“We need more expertise,” Hutchens said.

The foundation is getting bigger and more complex. It has an annual budget of about $275,000, funded through membership dues. It hosts a growing number of events each year, including an antiques fair and a fall art festival, that are designed to attract more customers. Some business owners doubt the effectiveness of some functions, but all say the foundation works hard to boost awareness of the area.

“My take is that things have gotten consistently better in Valley Junction,” said Bruce Lambert, who owns Honey Sweet Gourmet, a specialty food store in the district. “The events are stronger. The mall has a few people nervous, but it was that way when Valley West opened and we did fine. If I was selling short-sleeved polo shirts, then yeah, I’d be nervous.”

Another issue in the search for a new director, Hutchens said, is that Valley Junction business owners no longer volunteer for projects as often as they once did. He declined to reveal how much the director’s job pays.

The new director will also face challenges in unifying the business community. Since Mullen left, the foundation hasn’t kept to its former schedule of regular meetings of business owners, Swander said. Because most Valley Junction stores are niche-oriented businesses, Neidig said, their owners tend to have a go-it-alone attitude.

“There’s going to have to be some major changes for [Valley Junction] to survive,” Neidig said. “There’s not a lot of cohesiveness here. The area hasn’t been that tight.”

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