116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Newton, Iowa, is a much different place almost a decade and a half after the city lost its Fortune 500 company.
The central Iowa city has spent the past 14 years reestablishing itself after Maytag, the washing machine manufacturer that at its peak employed more than 3,000 people, left the city in 2007.
Since those days of wondering what it could do, the city has attracted new businesses and is revitalizing its downtown, much as other Iowa cities — Marion and Sioux City, for example — have done.
“Some days you could walk through the town and almost hear a pin drop,” Newton Main Street Director Erin Yeager recalled. “There was a lot of sorrow in town. It wasn’t just your dad or your mom, it was your entire family that worked (at Maytag), so everyone lost their job here as small businesses were also tied to Maytag.”
If you don’t have community buy-in, nothing will ever happen.
Yeager, a lifelong Newtonian, was a full-time hairdresser when Maytag left. Her business had been located in the heart of downtown Newton since 2002.
“In 2008, the shops we lost, it was scary,” she said. “We had around 12 vacant buildings back then in the downtown area. Now, we’re down to three or four.”
Newton, with more than 15,000 residents today, was founded in 1846. The majority of the city’s life was tied to Maytag, founded in 1893.
Before the city built washing machines, the Jasper County seat’s growth was fueled by coal mines. In the early 20th century, coal mining declined and washing machine assembly increased.
And this year Newton residents have seen the city grow and prosper due to a diverse economy and community involvement.
“If you don’t have community buy-in, nothing will ever happen,” Yeager said. “If you’re a Newtonian, you’re extremely passionate about this community. Back then, we didn’t have to worry about some things because Fred Maytag would just fund it. Now, we don’t have that.”
Plans for legacy plaza
While sections of the Maytag plant have been torn down since Maytag’s departure, the headquarters and a couple of other buildings remain.
The buildings mostly sat empty for around a decade, until the Des Moines Area Community College, or DMACC, and the city of Newton helped develop it into a new co-working space.
Less than 20 percent of the space is being used.
Parts of city operations are in the old headquarters building along with Newton Economic Development and Gezellig Brewery, which has space on the first floor.
The city hopes to transform the remaining Maytag buildings — the Legacy Plaza area — as a mixed-use district, in partnership with DMACC, which has a campus in Newton and owns much of the Legacy Plaza area.
The proposed district is almost 75 acres and includes the Legacy Plaza/DMACC property, downtown Newton and a few other properties.
The $47 million capital investment project received provisional funding approval of $14 million from the Iowa Economic Development Authority in June.
Three projects are detailed in the Iowa Reinvestment District application, which has been presented to the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board in hopes of receiving state funding assistance.
- The Residential and Hospitality Adaptive Reuse project will aim to establish market-rate apartments, a hotel and a ballroom as well as a craft cocktail lobby bar. This particular project is expected to cost around $23 million, and the city has requested more than $8 million in state assistance from the IEDA.
- The DMACC New Retail: Destination Legacy Commons project calls for upgrading the Legacy Plaza infrastructure, building new commons spaces, enhancing greenspace and expanding DMACC’s academic program space. The project is expected to cost $20 million, and the city has requested $7 million from IEDA.
- The Newton Resiliency Zone hopes to improve infrastructure and build a downtown splash pad park while continuing vacant building initiatives and improving the downtown and housing. This part of the project costs around $1.5 million and the city requested over $370,000 in state assistance.
Iowa Speedway arrives
For Newton, as with other cities, various pieces have come together over the years to help revitalize its urban core.
One of Newton’s major components was the opening of a NASCAR-affiliated racetrack.
The Iowa Speedway opened on the edge of the city in 2006, the same year Maytag announced it would be leaving Newton after being acquired by Whirlpool.
Craig Armstrong, economic development specialist for Newton and the former track vice president and general manager of the speedway, said the arrival of Iowa Speedway was the start of morale boosters for the city.
“Things were already underway, but things were also far from finished,” Armstrong recalled.
Before the pandemic, the $70 million speedway hosted various NASCAR and IndyCar races throughout the years. The speedway again is hosting full-capacity events this year, even though NASCAR and IndyCar are not.
Armstrong arrived in town with the speedway at the end of the Maytag era.
“Newton had one economic model, which was a Fortune 500 company living in this small city, and all of a sudden, that company was not there,” he said.
Turbine blades become the new washing machines
In 2008, wind turbine-blade manufacturer TPI Composites arrived in Newton and replaced the hole that Maytag left in the community. The company now employs close to 900 people.
TPI, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., pays more than $50 million in wages each year.
“When TPI moved in to replace Maytag, it really did give more hope to this community,” Main Street Director Yeager said.
Josh Syhlman, TPI’s general manager in Newton, grew up near town and was a former Maytag employee, as was his mother, who retired from the company.
“Maytag was the heart and soul of Newton. They were so involved in the community and the schools,” he said. “You couldn’t do anything as a kid growing up without Maytag. The pool is named after Maytag, there’s Maytag Park.”
1893: Frederick Maytag founds a company that makes farming equipment.
1907: The company’s first washing machine is introduced.
1924: 20 percent of all washing machines are built in Newton.
1940: Maytag’s grandson, Fred Maytag II, 29, takes over the company.
2004: Maytag reveals loss of $9 million.
2006: Maytag is acquired by Whirlpool Corp.
Syhlman left Maytag when it was acquired by Whirlpool to go work at a company in Des Moines.
“After I left Maytag, I basically disconnected from Newton as much as possible. Maybe I just didn’t want to think about the situation,” he said. “During that two-year period, I might’ve gone to Newton three or four times.”
But one day, Syhlman received a call from a TPI recruiter.
“I knew nothing about the industry or about TPI. I just knew they were a large employer with plans to employ around 1,000,” Syhlman recalled. “They came because Maytag left. They knew there was a large unemployed workforce here. It’s also expensive to transport blades, so central Iowa is a great location for that.”
Syhlman said that joining TPI not only gave him a job back in Newton, it gave him the desire to get involved in his hometown again.
“I feel more connected here than I ever have,” he said. “When Maytag was present, everything revolved around Maytag. Now, there’s a neat deal of everything, and small businesses are succeeding. Our economy revolves around small business.”
Newton Hotel finds life again
Other than the Jasper County Courthouse, which sits in the middle of the downtown square, another integral piece of Newton’s downtown revitalization is the old Hotel Maytag.
The hotel, which opened just before Christmas 1926, is now a large, mostly affordable-housing apartment building. Its renovation began in 2017, and it opened in 2019.
Yeager said the building now is almost 100 percent occupied.
“They were all rented the first week,” he said.
The hotel, built by Maytag founder Frederick Maytag, was a spot for the company’s traveling salesmen to stay. It had 100 rooms when it opened and was the first hotel west of the Mississippi to have air conditioning.
The building later was turned into apartments and offices but began to fall into disrepair in the 1960s.
In 2016, Newton city officials bought the building for around $400,000 and a year later turned the deed over to the Hatch Development Group, owned by Jack Hatch, a former state legislator and gubernatorial and Des Moines mayoral candidate.
The renovation, which cost $16 million, created 45 apartments and updated the building’s movie theater, cafe and ballroom. The theater, which originally opened in 1927, still features the signatures of visiting movie stars Judy Garland and Gary Cooper on a basement dressing room wall.
The project received $5.9 million in state funding as well as a $2.9 million investment from Newton.
“It’s made quite the difference in this community while also keeping its classic architecture,” Armstrong said.
The city also has improved commercial and residential spaces in the downtown and outside the downtown.
The city and Newton Main Street, formed in 2014, have awarded thousands of dollars in grants to businesses to upgrade downtown building facades.
“I really think the Maytag Hotel renovation really pushed more renovation for downtown living,” Yeager said. “At least 16 of our buildings have upstairs living.”
“More people living downtown gives a better chance for strong retail,” Armstrong said. “It’s all a work in progress, and we have a lot of work left to do.”
JoAnne Kunkel not only owns Aleya, a hair salon in downtown Newton, but she lives in an apartment above it, overlooking the downtown square and with a clear view of the courthouse.
Kunkel rents out 20 suites in the building — built in the early 1900s — to businesses such as hair salons, makeup and massage therapy.
“When I bought the building, Maytag was just starting the layoffs, and it was stressful,” Kunkel said. “But real estate was lower, so I bought the building, sold my house and moved upstairs and have now lived here for 14 years.”
Kunkel's business was directly affected by Maytag’s departure. Her husband at the time, her father and her sisters all worked at Maytag.
Through the years since Maytag left, Kunkel has seen the downtown area evolve and revive. She has kept her suites full from the start, and more than half are operated by original tenants.
“The heart is still here in Newton,” Kunkel said. “We’ve never lost that heart.”
Newton also needed to find a way to get more homes built in the city. No new houses were built in 2011, and only five were built in 2012-13.
So the city began a housing initiative that offered up to $10,000 cash to anyone building a new home, said Frank Liebl, executive director of economic development in Newton.
For houses valued at more than $180,000, homeowners can get $10,000. For houses valued less than that, it’s $5,000.
Since then, 75 new houses have been built in Newton, with 50 percent being homeowners new to the community.
“It blows me away that our population has stayed consistent for all these years, even after Maytag left,” Liebl said. “Having the housing initiative and downtown facade grants have all played a huge role in helping Newton survive.”
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