Business

Czech Village says it's primed for business

Some Czech Village business owners aim to catch up with NewBo

Emarie Klinger (center), 6, and her brother Lennon, 3, checks out one of the tents on display as they wait for their mother to shop at Soko Outfitters, 41 16th Avenue SW, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Emarie Klinger (center), 6, and her brother Lennon, 3, checks out one of the tents on display as they wait for their mother to shop at Soko Outfitters, 41 16th Avenue SW, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — With Czech Village seeing new retailers and restaurants opening shop recently and into the next few months, it could be a signal that the district is benefiting from the New Bohemia neighborhood’s proximity just across the river.

But the catch, some of those business owners say, is figuring out how to modernize the area while maintaining its cultural identity. Or if it should.

The first major opening this year, on Sept. 1, was Soko Outfitters, an outdoor equipment store co-owned by Steve Shriver and other business partners. It added a set of goods for sale in the district focused on hiking, mountain climbing and kayaking, a contrast to the handful of antique and resale shops on the 16th Avenue SW strip, and was adorned with a nature trail-inspired mural on its southern-facing exterior wall.

Shriver, also co-owner of Eco Lips, a Marion-based lip balm company, and Brewhemia in NewBo, said it makes sense for Czech Village to see a wave of new interest as NewBo surged as a destination district, driving up rent prices and making Czech Village cheaper by comparison.

 

The village — southwest of Cedar Rapids’ downtown — also is smaller and denser than NewBo, Shriver said, making it ideal as a walkable retail area.

“It was clear that there would be a need to expand outside the boundaries of New Bohemia, and especially as it became more popular, rent prices increased, so Czech Village, sitting there literally a block away across the river, ... it was primed for business,” he said.

Soko’s owners invested $600,000 into the project, according to city documents.

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Several new ventures are set to open in the area in the next several months. Rodina, a restaurant serving Czech-inspired dishes, is slated to open sometime in January in the former Sauce location at 1507 C St. SW.

A second new eatery, Lost and Found Provisions and Spirits, is planning to open at 69 16th Ave. SW next March, owner Joel Kane said.

Both restaurants intend to invest $150,000 each to open.

A coffee shop is planned for the first floor of the old bank building at 99 16th Ave. SW, and 74 16th Ave. SW. is slated to be remodeled into a retail space as workers chip away its stucco exterior to reveal its original brick.

Mary Kay Novak McGrath, a prominent landlord in the area and owner of those two buildings, said she is in the process of finalizing lease agreements for those businesses, but declined to identify the owners.

‘Blurring of the lines’

Non-retail developments also have raised the area’s profile in recent months. Mount Trashmore’s trails and overlook brought more traffic through the area when it opened to the public earlier this year, and the Friends of Czech Village group previously announced a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to rebuild the Riverside Roundhouse, a neighborhood center torn down after the 2008 flood.

 

Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the New Bohemia-Czech Village Main Street District, said there’s been a “blurring of the lines” between the two neighborhoods over time, where visitors coming for an event in NewBo also stop in Czech Village after for a drink or to shop.

Now, as new businesses are coming into the area and more people move into the surrounding neighborhoods, Pruden believes the district will have more local clientele to appeal to, and those customers also will head across the bridge to spend time in NewBo.

new ownership

Many of these new shops are opening in properties held by Novak McGrath, who bought eight buildings and a vacant lot in the district earlier this spring with plans to restore some of the building’s historic features and draw in more foot traffic, with the National Czech and Slovak Museum as an anchor.

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So far, her plan seems to be working.

Novak McGrath said Czech Village always will stay close to its historical roots as the museum sits at the northwest corner of Czech Village.

And while the owners and businesses inside the storefronts change, she believes the nods to Czech art and architecture of the storefronts will key the area connected to its historical roots.

“I say to people, ‘Why would we want to duplicate when we’re an original?,’” she said.

Mark Stoffer-Hunter, research historian with the Linn County History Center, said Czech Village was considered the second most-popular commercial district in Cedar Rapids, right after downtown, for much of the 20th century and into the early 2000s.

But after the 2008 flood, some landowners in the village resisted a full-district change in strategy that property owners in NewBo were pursuing across the river, he said — leaving NewBo to outpace Czech Village’s growth in the post-flood era.

Pruden expects interest from developers in Czech Village to continue as the city pushes to install more flood controls along the Cedar River, reducing risk for builders considering vacant land for commercial or residential ventures.

“There will be some land that should open up along C Street, and Czech Village can expand even more,” she said.

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A mix of old and new

When his family moved to the area in 1975, most of the buildings in the village were owner-occupied businesses that ran for several decades, Czech Cottage owner Bob Schaffer said. This year has been one of the largest periods of change in the district in his recollection, he said.

Schaffer also has contributed to that change over time by owning a mixed-use development adjacent to his building.

Earlier this month, the Iowa Economic Development Authority gave him $60,000 grant to rehab the Cottage building’s exterior at 100 16th Ave. SW to mirror its original look, just under half the project’s listed budget of about $147,450.

Schaffer said NewBo’s development serves as a connection point between downtown and Czech Village, and he sees that helping the village blend a longtime older customer base with a new wave of young professionals.

 

In the meantime, he expects commercial rent prices to stay low enough for retirement-age business owners.

“Hard telling how long any of us will last, but I’m having a pretty good time,” he said with a grin.

Lost and Found’s Kane said the new set of business owners coming to the district will help draw in a younger demographic that would feel at home either in NewBo or Czech Village, something he thinks hasn’t been in that area for a while.

“I think (Czech Village) has been somewhat similar to what it has been for a very long time, and I think any time there’s development going on all around, things have to change,” he said.

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“We understand and respect what Czech Village is, but there’s got to be a little changing of times and the handing off the torch, so we can start making that district generate revenue again.”

Separated by a river, connected by history

Business owners and landlords in Czech Village don’t see the new buzz in the area as a challenge to NewBo, saying the two neighborhoods are two different experiences that can complement each other.

Phoebe Charles, co-owner of Rodina, said Czech Village already is starting to draw customers across the 16th Avenue bridge. But she eventually sees the two districts feeding visitors into one another.

 

“They are technically two different things and I think they should hold their own identities, but I don’t think the consumer realizes they are partners,” she said.

The new wave of landlords and entrepreneurs in the village should help attract more visitors and shoppers on a regular basis to the benefit of both of the districts, Stoffer-Hunter said.

“I think both sides of the river are stronger if they’re unified together,” he said.

“There’s enough business for both of them to thrive down the road, and I think they need to embrace the fact that they’re connected historically.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8366; dan.mika@thegazette.com

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