The Ground Floor: Daycare grows in historic Cedar Rapids building

'I had to make decisions on things I hadn't really considered'

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A new Cedar Rapids business is making good use of an historic space.

Little GEM Learning Center opened last fall in the old Iowa Highway Commission building on 16th Avenue SW. The building, which previously housed the Iowa Department of Transportation’s District 6 offices, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Owner Katie Meisterling feels fortunate to have her business be part of the building’s history.

Meisterling, who has a degree in elementary education and is completing a master’s degree, had worked in retail management for the first seven years after her graduation from Coe College. About three years ago, she decided to take the initial steps toward her long-term career goal of running a child care center.

“I finally said to my husband that I don’t want to do retail anymore,” she said. “We purchased a second home that I could devote to an in-home day care center to avoid the wear and tear on our home.”

A year and a half later, developer Steve Emerson, a family friend, approached Meisterling to see if she would be interested in opening a child care center in the old District 6 building, which he was planning to purchase.

“He had a vision about how the building could be repurposed,” Meisterling said. “It was scary for me because I had to make a lot of decisions quickly. But you don’t say no to an opportunity that’s your lifelong goal.”

So she agreed.

That was January 2016. The next several months brought many more decisions for Meisterling as she worked with contractors on the build-out. She had to design a child care facility that met Department of Human Services licensing requirements while maintaining the historical integrity of the building.

“I had to make decisions on things I hadn’t really considered before, like toilet and sink height,” she said.

While the building’s historic designation precluded structural changes, Meisterling found the building well suited to its new purpose. The 12 former offices became nine classrooms, a gross-motor skills room, a kitchen and a staff lounge. The configuration allows Meisterling to place younger children who are not yet of preschool age into rooms based on six-month age groups, beginning with zero to six months.

“It’s pretty unique to divide that specifically, but it happened naturally because the architecture also is pretty unique,” she said.

She said she also appreciates the building’s original features such as tile floors and iron railings because they give the building “the look of an old school.”

The building grounds include ample parking for staff and parents, and a large, shaded area for a playground.

Little GEM — GEM stands for growing, enriching and mentoring — opened on Sept. 12 with three classrooms while carpenters completed work on the other rooms. Less than a year letter, the center has grown into all nine classrooms with a staff of 22.

AT A GLANCE

Owner: Katie Meisterling

Business: Little GEM Learning Center

Address: 430 16th Avenue SW, Cedar Rapids

Telephone: (319) 795-1700

Facebook: www.facebook.com/littleGEMlc

Know a business in operation for less than a year that would make a good “Ground Floor”? Contact michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com

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