Business

Shueyville, Swisher count on small business, start-ups to meet economic goals

Joseph Ralston, Meagan Ralston, Rebekah Neuendorf, and Nick Neuendorf stand in front of the DanceMor Ballroom in Swisher on Thursday, March 8, 2018. The two couples purchased the building, which they hope to reopen as a dance hall and event space this summer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Joseph Ralston, Meagan Ralston, Rebekah Neuendorf, and Nick Neuendorf stand in front of the DanceMor Ballroom in Swisher on Thursday, March 8, 2018. The two couples purchased the building, which they hope to reopen as a dance hall and event space this summer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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To some, when it comes to Corridor cities, the term “business growth” can evoke developments in larger communities, such as North Liberty and Coralville.

Tiffin recently has become accustomed to the spotlight, following a recorded 72.6 percent population boom between 2010 and 2017.

Where does that leave the small-town economies in the comparatively diminutive Shueyville and Swisher?

The two cities, with respective populations estimated around 667 and 974 residents, aren’t seeing large retail chains opening locations — and those communities aren’t necessarily going out of their way to court them, either.

But in both cities — more or less fronting opposite sides of Interstate 380 in northern Johnson County — a blend of residents and out-of-town visitors have helped small businesses both new and old flourish.

Growing up in Shueyville, Lauren Chalupsky-Cannon used to ride her bike down the hill where she currently owns the Secret Cellar, which offers a variety of wines, spirits, cheeses and related classes.

“Who would’ve thought 40 years later I’d be selling booze in the old white farmhouse?” she wondered, adding, “I think that’s part of why this worked so well, that I do have a great connection in the community and I love the people. ... A lot of them are my family and we support each other.”

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Opening the Secret Cellar in 2004 was a “total burst of inspiration” for Chalupsky-Cannon, who had seen a “for rent” sign driving past the building. Though she said it took years for people to realize the cellar was there — befitting its “secret” name — more recently there has been an uptick in customers, including business travelers and commuters.

“They always comment, ‘Oh, this is so cute, you’d never expect you’d have all this inside a two-story farmhouse,’ and about just how unique the experience is, that this definitely isn’t a ‘shopping at a big-box store’ experience,” Chalupsky-Cannon said.

‘We have to be extra good’

Maddi B’s pizza and ice cream eatery in Shueyville enjoys consistent support from local customers, too, living not just in the city but in nearby Swisher, Ely and Solon, co-owner Shawn Rife said.

The venue prides itself on providing first jobs for a number of area high schoolers, which in turn results in more traffic, she said.

“Families come here because their kids are here and want to support not only them working but a business that’s hiring them,” Rife said.

Support among local businesses also is key in continuing to drive customer traffic, said Sonya LaGrange, who opened Swisher’s Black Squirrel Tap and Vault Boutique in 2016.

“All of the businesses here in town do a pretty good job of promoting each other,” she said. “If people come into the boutique, we try to tell them to go over to Kava or the bar to grab something to eat.”

Kava House and Cafe opened “fairly quietly” in Swisher nearly 11 years ago, said co-owner Karen Vondracek, but as it grew, the coffee shop and eatery added menu items, extended its hours and began opening for special events, like graduations or parties, on Sundays.

“I really feel like every year in some way is a milestone,” Vondracek said, of operating a restaurant in a small town. “It’s not like we’re in downtown Iowa City or another town where there’s a lot of foot traffic. ... We have to be extra good at what we do to get people to drive here.”

GROWING PAINS

Whether Shueyville and Swisher’s small-town status equates to limited room for business growth is a question mark.

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Shueyville officials currently aren’t actively recruiting new businesses, said Mayor Mickey Coonfare, who added that she does not know where the city could accommodate them.

“Some towns are trying to fill vacant buildings and we don’t really have that. ... We really don’t have an area that you could put businesses in,” Coonfare said.

“We have a lot of residential (property) and so you would have to be taking residential away to put businesses in.”

Out of 100 Shueyville residents who answered a 2015 community survey, 68 said that the amount of commercial land in town should be increased as a means for expanding the tax base and providing services, while 32 said it should not.

Among the first group, a grocery store, small-scale shops and a restaurant were the top three desired business types.

”We would love to see some more amenities and keep business local instead of always having to drive into C.R. or I.C.!” one respondent wrote.

“I do not think that we need to rezone existing farm ground just so it can be sold. 70+ acres of commercial is way more than we need,” suggested another.

Even without big business expansions, Coonfare said Shueyville still is “growing like crazy.” She pointed to what she estimated were three to six new homes built each year.

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The families moving in do so because they want a “rural atmosphere,” she added, and many — who commute to larger cities for work — take advantage of certain amenities, such as a grocery store, elsewhere.

“Years and years and years ago, we did have a little grocery store in town and it couldn’t compete,” Coonfare said. “You weren’t going to shop there because it’s like going to the gas station and getting bread: You do it when you have to have it right now, but it’s higher (priced) than it is at the grocery store.”

Getting the word out

Swisher followed through on one aspect of its 2015 comprehensive plan and allocated $30,000 for a revolving loan fund for entrepreneurs. But so far, no one has inquired about the loans, said Robyn Jacobson, contracts administrator with the East Central Iowa Council of Governments, which would administer the funds.

Through Swisher’s fund, small businesses could receive loans ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, with a 4 percent interest rate over a time frame up to five years, for use in buying machinery, equipment, property or making tenant improvements.

Jacobson chalked up the apparent lack of interest in Swisher’s fund, and a general one her organization offers up to $500,000, to limited knowledge they exist.

“It’s just a matter of getting that information out and having people understand that there are resources available for them,” she said.

On the other hand, Chalupsky-Cannon said she believes Shueyville has potential for business growth but “the reins are tight” on account of what she believes could be a conservative mind-set among city officials.

Chalupsky-Cannon said she began holding her now-bustling Friday farmers market in the Secret Cellar’s front yard after council members did not approve her request to hold the events in the Shueyville Community Center.

“I understand there are people that have lived here ... their whole lives, and so to be mindful and respectful of them,” she said. She added that, without new business, the city eventually could dwindle.

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“We’re going to get swallowed up by Cedar Rapids and not make any decisions of our own,” Chalupsky-Cannon said.

In Swisher, the zoning for some commercial buildings is grandfathered in, rather than permitted under current code, said Rebekah Neuendorf, co-owner of DanceMor Ballroom and a city council member.

As a result, she said, the businesses might not be able to carry out desired expansion plans because they’d then have to bring their buildings into compliance with modern code in ways Swisher might struggle to support.

For example, because the city does not supply water service, the installation of new sprinkler systems might put a strain on the shared wells used, Neuendorf said.

“I have no doubt that some things like that are why DanceMor sat vacant for four years,” she said. “It’s challenging to think and work around some of those things that are just kind of there right now in Swisher.”

LaGrange, of Black Squirrel Tap, is part of a group of around seven Swisher small business owners who hold monthly meetings and discuss their ideas for the community.

One possibility could involve seeing whether the owners of seemingly inactive properties would be interested in selling to an investor for development, she said.

“We’re always trying to come up with things that’ll pull people in and get the word out,” LaGrange said. “If you don’t, small towns kind of tend to dry up and there’s nothing to do, and people head to the bigger cities for fun stuff when, a lot of the time, small towns are the funnest places to be.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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