116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
ELY — A small town is not the place many would peg as an ideal location for a start-up. However, several small business owners are attempting to prove that standard doesn't apply to Ely.
The population of Ely, southeast of Cedar Rapids, stood at just more than 2,000 in 2014 — a more than 70 percent increase since the 2000 census, according to City-Data.com.
An economic hub of the town has grown in Ely, too, particularly on Dows Street where several small businesses have cropped up within a few blocks of one another. While many have been established for decades, some businesses have opened shop in the past couple years.
Moreover, a majority of these businesses are owned or co-owned by women.
This economic growth in Ely is in line with a trend across the United States, where 'many small towns have been reinvigorated in recent years,' according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
With more than 28 million small businesses across the country, 80.5 percent of establishments opened in 2013 in Iowa survived through the following year, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
One new business that came to Ely belongs to Sara Prokop, who opened the doors to Lush Salon at 1600 Dow St. on Oct. 1. Prokop previously operated her business in the New Bo District in Cedar Rapids since September 2012.
But after Prokop's sister and former co-owner of the company, Liz Healy, left the business, Prokop downsized from her six-chair salon to four chairs. She has one employee, cosmetologist Holly Williams.
Prokop has lived in Ely for the past 11 years, and has seen the community grow during that time. Although she said she was profitable in Cedar Rapids, she jumped at the chance to move into her hometown.
'I just love Ely, so when this opportunity came up ...
I wanted to be with this growing community of businesses down here,' she said.
While she had to take out a loan for the remodel of her new salon — which offers hair, nail and body waxing services — the move has paid off. Her overhead costs much less, and while some of her Cedar Rapids customers have followed her, Prokop said she's also been procuring new ones from the surrounding area.
Prokop said she and Williams 'easily see 40 clients a piece a week' during their Tuesday through Saturday schedule.
Lush Salon is among the handful of the nearly 10 small business in the main road through the town have come into being during the past couple years.
Debbie Takes and her husband, Dan, have been operating a 240-acre dairy farm in rural Ely since 1998. In July 2013, the family purchased the building on 1600 Main St. that previously housed the Vavra Lumber Yard.
After a three-year renovation and thousands of dollars in investments into new equipment, Dan and Debbie's Creamery opened in July of this year as an ice cream shop. The creamery sells milk, flavored cheese curds and ice cream — all of which is made in the building — to some 500 customers a week.
Takes said the farm sells most of its milk to Davenport-based dairy-products producer Swiss Valley Farms, she hopes one day to be able to sell all the farm's dairy products in the creamery.
Elizabeth Rohner and her husband, Thomas Rohner, said they intended to open shop in West Liberty, but when a realty deal fell through, they looked at Odie's Bar and Grill at 1650 Dows St. in Ely. After a visit — the bar was hosting a firefighter's dance at the time — they were smitten by the town.
They purchased the venue, at 1650 Dows St., in January 2005.
Some of the newer entrepreneurs have said the establishment of longtime businesses such as Lacey's Barber Shop, opened by Lacey Stockdale in November 2001, and Hair Creations Salon, owned by April Steuhm since March 2006, showed them success was possible in Ely.
'If they can succeed for 15 years, it can happen,' said Tammy Bryant, owner of Cloud 9 Massage and Spa.
Because Ely is a bedroom community — about 10 miles from downtown Cedar Rapids, many of its residents work in the city, or travel elsewhere for shopping and entertainment — Rohner noted that '...
you can't just depend (solely) on the locals. They support you, but they can't come through your door every day.'
So some of the businesses have made adjustments to fit the needs of residents. For example, Prokop said her salon is open in the evenings and on Saturdays.
Bryant, on the other hand, aimed to make Cloud 9 Massage and Spa a destination spot by launching flotation therapy services in July, after relocating to a bigger space at 1685 Dows St.
The therapy is done in a fiberglass pod filled with 13 inches of water and 1,100 pounds of Epsom salt that creates a zero-gravity effect. Bryant said she believes Cloud 9 spa's flotation pod, which she said helps treat pain, reduce stress and treat a variety of other conditions, is the one in the state.
Since installing the pod, Bryant said she's had customers from as far away as Mount Pleasant.
Other businesses have reported customers from all over as well. Some, particularly Odie's Bar, benefit from regular foot traffic along the Hoover Nature Trail, the bike and walking trail that runs from the outskirts of Cedar Rapids into Ely City Park.
Some business owners say Ely's location between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City as a contributor to the boost in businesses, but it's likely not caused by a single factor.
'We're not sure what it is, but we're glad it is,' Takes said.
Another plus is the small businesses look out for each other. Stockdale of Lacey's Barber Shop 'is my best advertiser,' Bryant said.
Bryant said she also makes sure to return the favor to Stockdale as well as other businesses on the block.
Melissa Reed, owner of the retail shop Downtown Dachshund that opened in May, said she has created a system to draw customers to one another's door through an exchange of business cards. If customers bring in a card from another store, they could receive a discount or a free service.
One common theme for these entrepreneurs is they didn't come to Ely to be rich — and to determine success is to accept that fact.
'I know friends with bigger clothing boutiques in bigger towns, and they say on average they do $10,000 to $12,000 a day,' Reed said. 'I can't expect that because that's not going to happen.'
'Some days you say, 'What am I doing?,' and then the next day is fine. I think that's just every business, though,' Prokop said.