Valley Junction reaches a crossroads
With an ongoing surge of new development in West Des Moines, the Valley Junction area – the city’s original town center – is working on some changes of its own.
“(New development) does throw energy into our programs to make sure that we’re keeping our programs vital and fresh,” said Vicki Davis, the executive director of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation.
This spring, the foundation began working on a market analysis for the business district. When the study is completed this fall, it will be used to develop future activities, projects and set goals for the upcoming year, Davis said.
The city of West Des Moines and the Main Street Iowa program are partnering with the HVJF to carry out the study, which Davis said includes a combination of taking an inventory of vacant storefronts and assessing the condition of the buildings and interviewing many people about their impressions of the shopping district.
“We will be talking a lot with the community to find out if they are coming to Valley Junction and what they enjoy about the experience, or why they aren’t coming down here and what might entice them to come here more often,” she said.
Some changes in Valley Junction are already taking shape. Earlier this month, Davis said the HVJF announced three new incentive programs for its merchants. Two of the programs are sponsored by the foundation: a sign and awning grant to encourage merchants to improve the aesthetics of their stores and a low-interest loan program in cooperation with local banks. The third program is a technical assistance grant through the city of West Des Moines.
The direction of traffic on Fifth Street in Valley Junction was also reversed from southbound to northbound from Railroad Avenue to Vine Street earlier this month, which Davis said makes access more convenient for people who are not familiar with the area.
“It makes much more sense to approach a commercial district from a major corridor, as opposed to residential streets,” Davis said.
THEN AND NOW
Once bustling with railroad activity, Valley Junction virtually fell asleep about halfway through the 20th century. Finally in 1987, a transformation began, as the district became a nationally certified Main Street Community.
“What I hear is that at the time when we organized as a foundation and became a Main Street Community, we were known as ‘antique alley,’” Davis said. “I have heard more than one person say that you could shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anything. Increasing foot traffic and bringing in businesses that complement the antique shops was a focus.
“Some early efforts of the foundation board was to bring in some high-end and artsy shops, and they were obviously very successful. We continue to work to keep this business district in the forefront of people’s minds.”
Today, Valley Junction is in competition with several other retail centers in Greater Des Moines. Davis said Valley Junction does not feel that Jordan Creek Town Center has had a negative impact on Valley Junction’s business climate, although its presence has not gone unnoticed. During the mega mall’s early days, representatives from the HVJF met with Jordan Creek leaders to talk about how the two could potentially work together.
“They are a destination in West Des Moines as we are, so it’s a natural reason to want to work together to keep retail activity in West Des Moines,” Davis said. “We don’t view each other as competitive, but complementary. We determined that our shopping areas are both day-tripping destinations, and if we coordinate efforts, we can turn those day trips into weekend trips.”
Valley Junction’s business climate is strong, Davis said, and a market analysis will help keep it a thriving commercial district.
“We continue to experience very minimal vacancies,” she said. “We have a couple of open spots right now, and I have a whole folder full of folks who would love to open a business here.”
Davis said bringing new businesses into Valley Junction is not about keeping storefronts occupied as much as bringing in the right mix of businesses.
“We talk with potential business owners about how their business will fit in with the whole Valley Junction picture, not for the purpose of being snobbish, but to help the businesses that come down here to be successful and to fit with the other businesses to help them be successful,” Davis said.
Valley Junction is currently home to more than 120 diverse shops and about 40 offices. Davis calls it “an eclectic mix of specialty shops, ranging from antiques to custom-made jewelry.
Like other retail centers, Valley Junction experiences some turnover each winter following the holidays, with a handful of business closings, Davis said. But by spring, new businesses enter to replace those that departed. Over the past few months, Fashion Accents shoes and accessories, A Florist on 5th flowers and gifts, A House Full antiques, La Michoacana Mexican grocery and eatery and Valley Junction Wine and Tobacco all laid down roots in Valley Junction.
Ron Choate, owner of A House Full, said business turnover in Valley Junction has its advantages and disadvantages.
“It can be good in one way because there is always something new, but it’s also call ahead to see if the business is still there,” Choate said. “There is quite a bit of turnover, and something comes in its place, but people still remember that there had been something else there. And they might leave here disappointed when they make a trip here and find out that a store has closed.”
Choate operated a gift store in Valley Junction, A Small World, for eight years, but closed that business at the end of 2004 due to declining sales. But he knew that he still wanted to own a business in Valley Junction, so he opened his antiques store in March, moving to a location a fraction of the size of his old store. The Write Touch moved into former A Small World’s space.
“I like Valley Junction and I believe in Valley Junction,” Choate said. “I hate to see an area like this with high turnover, but I would hate for Des Moines to lose an area like this. It has the feel of a small-town main street, which even a lot of small towns don’t have anymore.”
When deciding what type of store he wanted to open, Choate decided to build on the district’s foundation in antiques.
“Valley Junction has always been a destination where you might take someone if you know they like antiques, and for a while in recent years, when you got down here, there weren’t that many antique stores,” Choate said. “I saw where there was a need for another antique store.”
Lori Stull and her business partner, Mike Peterson, launched Florist on 5th partly out of nostalgia for the area. Years ago, when Stull’s grandfather was traveling through Iowa by rail, his train stopped in Valley Junction. Hearing music playing nearby, he left the train to check out its source, which turned out to be a bar. He decided not to get back on the train that day. Instead, he got a job with the Rock Island Railroad and laid his roots in Valley Junction.
“I used to come here all the time growing up and walk to Railroad Park with my grandpa,” Stull said. “I always liked the old-fashioned feel of this area, and when I decided to start a business of my own, I was surprised that I could find a place down here that was affordable.”
Jackie Crusan opened Fashion Acccents, a fun and trendy women’s shoes and accessories store, in the middle of April after a lengthy search for a suitable location.
“I wanted somewhere where there is a lot of foot traffic, and it had to be small enough so that I wouldn’t be paying for space I didn’t need,” Crusan said. “I knew that I didn’t want to be in a mall because of the cost, and in a mall, you really have to go with the hours that they set. Plus, there are really cool shops here.”
Other stores have been in Valley Junction for many years. Kavanaugh Gallery is one of these success stories. Owners Dan and Carole Kavanaugh opened their business in Valley Junction 16 years ago. Following the Floods of 1993, they moved their operations to the current location, and recently completed their third expansion.
“Every year just seems to be better than the year before,” Dan Kavanaugh said. Our business is good. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be expanding.”
Now the Kavanaughs have about 9,000 square feet of space for their gallery, after starting out with about 2,500 square feet. Dan, a former food broker, and Carole, a former commercial real estate agent, attribute part of their success to gaining extensive backgrounds in business before starting their gallery a little later in life.
“Some people, when they start their businesses, don’t anticipate how long it will be before they actually make a profit, and they don’t have the cash in their pocket to hold the business together until they establish the clientele,” Carole Kavanaugh said. “It isn’t an overnight thing.”
The Kavanaughs have seen both the growth and the demise of many surrounding businesses during their time in Valley Junction, and Dan Kavanaugh expects it to continue.
“There are only so many people here in Des Moines with so much money to spend,” he said. “Even if the population in the area goes up by about 4 to 5 percent each year, that’s not enough growth to keep pace with the number of new places to spend money that are opening up. Somebody is going to have to close. It’s a fact of being in business.”