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With Wasserbahn closed, Iowa County I-80 Exit 225 largely vacant, but small businesses growing
Once thriving Interstate-80 interchange faces extinction
What used to be a bustling exit on Interstate 80 in Iowa County now is studded with empty buildings since the Wasserbahn Waterpark Resort closed last month.
But Iowa County officials predict Exit 225 will regenerate.
One sign of that, said Kate Robertson, executive director for Benton and Iowa County Economic Development, is the upcoming renovation of the Heritage Inn, a 25-year-old hotel on the north side of the interstate that she said is expected to join a national franchise.
“There’s only one way to go and that’s up at that exit,” Robertson said. “It’s a matter of the county and our organization to really market that exit, specifically. It has the potential to be a hot spot along Interstate 80.”
The last time Exit 225 was a true hot spot was before growth of commercial zones in Coralville and Tiffin siphoned off customers who might have stopped in Iowa County to eat or stay the night after a University of Iowa football game, said Aaron Sandersfeld, Williamsburg city administrator and an Iowa County native.
Exit 225 was developed in the 1970s by Amana-Nordstrom, now the Amana Society. They called the area Little Amana and, through satellite stores and restaurants, offered a taste of what visitors would find 10 minutes north in the Amana Colonies.
Amana-Nordstrom built the hotel that later became the Wasserbahn, which means “water ride” in German. In the early days, the hotel was a Holiday Inn that hosted wedding receptions, Christmas parties and buses of tourists who came to visit the Amana Colonies.
The Amana Society in 2004 sold the hotel property, which included several shops and restaurant spaces on the perimeter of the parking lot. After that, the Amana Society gradually distanced itself from Exit 225, said Jeff Popenhagen, Amana Society chief revenue officer.
“They kind of had a different mission and plan for that hotel and it didn’t fit with what we were trying to do,” he said. “There were numerous quality issues. We needed to protect our brand.
“We try to emphasize quality and hospitality. Without any control over that, it was hard to have our name on it.”
In the early 2000s, a fire at a Best Western hotel at Exit 225 eventually caused that building and a nearby restaurant to be torn down, Sandersfeld said.
By 2018, when a YouTuber visited to document stops along I-80, he noted finding “a waterpark, an old restaurant, some hotels, some ice cream, some fire works.” He was particularly fascinated by the closed Colony Village restaurant and zoomed in on faded signs and overgrown shrubs.
The Wasserbahn was a popular stop for families in Eastern Iowa or travelers on I-80. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic hit hotels across the country, the Wasserbahn owner tried to renovate rooms and bring in new visitors with live music, Sandersfeld said.
“A lot of the local people would make comments that it was a nice venue to have,” he said. “There aren’t a whole ton of things to do in the area like that, like live music.”
But the owner decided to close on March 1.
Robertson hasn’t been able to get in touch with Wasserbahn owner Yule Park, but Park has filed paperwork with Iowa County indicating he plans to demolish the hotel, she said.
An online auction was held in late March to sell everything inside the hotel, from linens and kitchen supplies to two four-story fiberglass waterslides.
Park has told residents he wants to build a truck stop on the site.
But for now, all that’s left south of the interstate is an Amoco gas station and the 225 Artisans Gallery gift shop.
Renee Driscoll started working in the gift shop in 1972, back when it sold Amana jellies, wine and fresh-baked bread. Over the years, she worked at the hotel after staying home with kids and then rented the gift shop space for her own business, 225 Artisans Gallery.
Named after the I-80 exit, the store sells handmade items from 40 vendors who make everything from bird feeders from upcycled relish trays to cribbage boards with bullets for the pegs. Driscoll chuckled as she showed off a leather handbag with a pocket on the back for a firearm.
“We just have the best stuff,” she said.
Driscoll doesn’t want to move all her wares to a new location, but she’s started looking.
“I hate to uproot all of a sudden,” she said. “I’m looking at several options. I don’t know how long I have.”
Pino's Sicilian Pizzeria relocated from Exit 225 to the Outlets Williamsburg soon after the Wasserbahn closed. Owner Joe Taormina, Jr. said he knew the hotel was going downhill, but he didn’t know it would close so quickly.
“I moved 18 pieces of heavy equipment in a day,” Taormina said.
“I had two customers of mine who helped us move some of that stuff. We got our plumber in here, an electrician in here. There’s not even a word to describe this community. It’s heaven sent.”
Taormina and his family opened the restaurant at Exit 225 in March 2019 and built a strong customer base among locals from Parnell to Marengo. Many of those regulars now are coming to the outlet mall location, he said.
‘Really great things happening’
Iowa County went from 844 retail establishments in fiscal year 2020 to 695 a year later, a decline of nearly 18 percent. That loss of restaurants and storefronts happened in every community across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is more surprising is Iowa County’s taxable sales have stayed fairly consistent, between $186 million and $200 million, for the past decade, with fiscal year 2020 being an outlier at $178 million, according to data from the Iowa Department of Revenue.
“You can attribute a lot of that to the hard work the Outlets Williamsburg have done,” Robertson said.
“Some will say it doesn’t have the traffic like it used to, but I would tend to disagree. There’s still Nike and Under Armour and other flagship stores, but they (mall managers) have really diversified.”
Robertson and Sandersfeld pointed to other small businesses that have opened in Iowa County’s towns, such as Back Porch Flowers and Gifts in Marengo, Brickhouse Coffee Co. in Williamsburg and Salt and Light Market in North English.
The Amana Colonies struggled during COVID-19, especially because one of their target demographics is older Americans, many of whom were cautious about returning to travel, Popenhagen said.
The Hotel Millwright, a 65-room boutique hotel, restaurant and conference center built into a historic textile mill, opened in 2020.
“That had a rough 18 months, but it’s really growing right now,” the Amana Society’s Popenhagen said. “I oversee the general store, woolen mill and furniture shop. All of us had a really good year.”
The Amana Colonies hosted new outdoor events in 2021 that allowed visitors to safely socialize and has renewed tourism partnerships with other Iowa County communities, he said. An Iowa County Shop Hop May 21 and 22 will encourage visitors to hit stores across the county.
Robertson said the renovation of the Heritage Inn at Exit 225 shows you can’t count out Exit 225 for new development.
Work isn’t obvious from the outside the hotel, which still is surrounded by waist-high weeds, but there’s a construction Dumpster in the parking lot and a peek inside the entrance windows shows buckets of paint, new doors and piles of white tile.
The hotel’s new owner could not be reached for contact.
“That potentially could be the catalyst for that area as a whole,” Robertson said. “There are a lot of really great things happening.”
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