Bill Wheeler has had a front-row seat to changes in the neighborhood where his soon-to-close Hiland Park Hardware store has been a mainstay for nearly 90 years.
Wheeler moved with his family to Highland Park on the city’s north side in the ‘60s, when he was 12. His friends and siblings were some of the youngest residents of the neighborhood, he says.
Later, after a stint in the Peace Corps and 11 years living in his wife’s home country of Micronesia, Wheeler returned to Des Moines and purchased the store. That was 1986, and a new generation of young families had moved into the neighborhood’s relatively inexpensive homes.
They sold their homes, collected their earned equity, and fled to the suburbs, leaving behind older neighbors.
Now, the neighborhood is full of young families again. More than 59% of residents in it and neighboring Oak Park are under 35, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
That shift, and a new, focused effort by the city and county officials to revitalize the neighborhood, convinced Wheeler it’s time for a new concept to move into his historic building. As he prepares to close his business, a neighbor is planning to open a coffee shop there.
“We’re getting younger people back, and we need those amenities that younger people appreciate,” Wheeler told The Des Moines Register . “And hardware is not necessarily one of them.”
Hiland Park Hardware has been a north-side staple since Highland Park was in its heyday (the spelling of the business name was a common early variation of Highland Park, according to background papers filed when the neighborhood, established in the 1880s, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998). Wheeler is unsure what year the store was established, but believes it opened in 1930.
The building at 3613 Sixth Ave. was constructed in 1920, according to the Polk County Assessor’s Office.
Wheeler, 66, purchased Hiland Park Hardware from his uncle, Milton Wheeler, 33 years ago. He and his late wife, Bibiana, quite literally raised four children in the store — the family home is on the upper level.
They sold hammers, nails, rakes and powertools, as well as made keys and repaired windows and screens. They had no employees besides their children, who all worked in the store as they grew up.
Wheeler began to think about retirement after his wife died a decade ago.
“I’ve worked seven days a week for 25 years,” Wheeler said. “For the most part, it’s just been me for the last 10 years.”
He’s met countless neighbors who, in fixing up their homes, have shopped almost exclusively at his store.
“Some people, this is the first place they think of to come when they’re working on a project,” he said. “We still have folks who think that way, and for them, I kind of feel bad I’m closing.”
But business has been slowly declining. Wheeler said he has found it hard to remain competitive with big box stores and online retailers that offer a greater selection of tools and other hardware at deep discounts.
“It’s not a home-improvement center. We help with small projects around the house,” he said.
That was the same reason Mike Robinson, the owner of Fairground Hardware, cited when he closed his neighborhood store east of downtown last year.
Now that he’s getting older, Wheeler thinks it’s simply time to move on. He plans to continue operating his window and screen repair business, which accounts for about 80% of sales, in a small portion of the building.
“That’s a business that I can probably pass on to my grandchildren,” he said. “There’s fewer and fewer people that repair windows and screens today.”
Wheeler’s friend and neighbor Drew Kelso has long dreamed of opening his own neighborhood coffee shop. When Wheeler caught wind of Kelso’s desire, he approached him with his plans for retirement.
The two agreed that Kelso would lease a large portion of the Hiland Park Hardware building for a coffee shop, and Wheeler would keep the rest for Bill’s Window & Screen Repair.
“I think the space would be better used as something different,” Wheeler said. “A coffee shop can be the push to help with revitalization in the neighborhood.”
Kelso’s yet-unnamed store will feature coffee beverages, to-go food and bakery items.
He plans to hire a baker, who will use the kitchen next door at Chuck’s Restaurant to produce the coffee shop’s baked goods and other food items.
Kelso, who works at Principal Financial Group and has served as the Highland Park Neighborhood Association’s president for three years, said he wants to create an intimate meeting and community space in the neighborhood. He will step down as president to focus on his new venture.
Few coffee shops are nearby and none are in the boundaries of Highland Park. Wheeler said neighbors ask for a coffee shop whenever there are vacancies in a building he owns next door to the hardware store.
A coffee shop can serve as a place where the community feels comfortable hanging out and socializing during the day without having to spend a lot of money, Kelso said.
“I’m looking at creating a place where the community can meet and have just a common ground with a low cost of entry,” he said.
That type of “third place” — a term used to describe a business or a public space that serves as a living room for a neighborhood — is what makes business districts successful, according to Des Moines’ new revitalization plan for the Highland Park and Oak Park neighborhoods.
Des Moines and Polk County have identified Highland Park/Oak Park, as well as the Drake, Franklin and Columbus Park neighborhoods, as part of a targeted effort to boost property values and revitalize areas of the city that have suffered from closed businesses and poorly maintained homes. Invest DSM, a nonprofit created by the city to facilitate the effort, has received $50 million to spend in these areas over 10 years.
The Highland Park/Oak Park special investment district extends from Sixth Avenue to 12th Street, and from McHenry Park to Seneca Avenue.
The newly formed organization is still determining exactly how and where the money will be spent, said Executive Director Amber Lynch. Money will be available to homeowners looking to repair homes that have sustained deferred maintenance, to property owners who need to demolish dilapidated homes, and to entrepreneurs who want to bring small businesses to the area.
Invest DSM also will partner with area agencies already offering some of these programs to get home and business owners in touch with existing resources.
Highland Park’s business district, which runs along Sixth Avenue north of Euclid Avenue, is about 35% vacant or in transition. Its 51 storefronts were largely built between 1900 and 1925 as a commercial corridor for the “streetcar suburb,” which was a short ride to downtown Des Moines.
But decades of soft demand as businesses shifted downtown and to the suburbs have left the buildings deteriorating and in need of expensive repairs that have been a deterrent for potential commercial tenants.
“Addressing those needs and adapting the business district to life in the 2020s and beyond will not be easy, inexpensive, or quick work — nor is it possible without a willingness by current and future residents to lead the way,” says a document outlining the neighborhood revitalization plan, which will serve as a framework for Invest DSM. “But the energy surrounding the neighborhood today makes it clear that there is a will because all that made this place special in the last century makes it worth fighting to revitalize in this one.”
The good news, however, is that Kelso and a handful of other entrepreneurs have reached out to Invest DSM, expressing interest in the Highland Park business district, Lynch said.
“That makes us optimistic about the future,” she said.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Des Moines Register.