Small Town Risk Takers

Towns and cities that are willing to take a risk on themselves – those are my favorite places to work. And Story City, Iowa is just such a place. I was there early last year spending a day talking with city officials, business people, preservationists and others all organized by the GCC — the Greater Chamber Connection. In Story City both the Chamber of Commerce and the local Main Street program fall within this GCC partnership and a very bright woman, Carolyn Huneycutt is the Director.

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Now the population of Story City is only around 3200, but their downtown has the “100% corner” like larger communities. And on their 100% corner sits the Charlson Building, one of the older structures in town, probably around 1880. A great building, on the most important corner in town, occupied by three businesses (I’ll come back to that below) but in deteriorating condition. Doing something with the building had been a priority of the GCC for a number of years. But they finally decided, “if not us, who” and took the leap to acquire the building themselves.

Why would they do that? Because the leadership of GCC, the Ackley State Bank, and a number of individuals understood that investing in the Charlson Building is not just dumping money in an old structure. It is certainly historic preservation, but it is also economic development, community development, small business incubation, business retention, downtown housing, good small town urbanism, and common sense.

Individuals came up with the down payment money and signed personal guarantees on the mortgage. The GCC had asked the town to guarantee the loan, but the City Council said, “we need more information, we need this studied some more, we have to think about this.” And so on a 2 to 2 vote with one abstention the town government chose not to participate. But the GCC understood this 19th century building should continue to serve an important function in the 21st century and went ahead without the city’s help.

I know projects like the Charlson Building. It will be time consuming, it will have unanticipated setbacks, it will have cost overruns, it will generate frustration with regularity, AND it will be a project generations of Story City residents will be grateful that someone had the courage to undertake.

The great Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, “The preservation movement has one great curiosity. There is never retrospective controversy or regret. Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact.” I know that’s going to be the case in Story City as well.

Now the tenants in the building — there are some apartments upstairs, but there are three commercial tenants: Curves (a health spa sort of place); the local office of Edward D. Jones & Company, probably the only national investment firm that understands there is also opportunity in small towns in America; and RVP1875.

RVP1875 is absolutely the coolest business I saw all last year anywhere. What do they do? They make furniture. But that’s a vast understatement. They reproduce furniture that was originally made in a narrow time frame — from about 1865 to 1880 if I remember correctly. But they make it exactly like it was made at the time — same materials, same wood, same tools, same craftsmanship.

Now I’m someone who can barely distinguish a nail from a hammer. But as a result I have a huge admiration and appreciation for those skilled in this fashion. RVP1875 is actually Robby Pedersen a master cabinet maker. Robby learned his skills while working as the resident cabinet maker atLiving History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa. After 10 years there he decided to make his skill his business and started RPV1875 in the Charlson Building in Story City.

The business and the building are a perfect match – each adding authenticity and credibility to the other. Now you can’t stop in Robby’s shop and just buy something – each piece is made to order. But you can see plenty of examples of his incredible craft, and he’s more than happy to show you his tools, explain how they work, and take your order for that cabinet or table or bedstead.

In part the reason the GCC took the risk on the Charlson Building was to keep RPV1875 in town. That’s what economic development is about.

The GCC and Robby Pedersen deserve each other. And a big cheer from here for what they are doing.