DES MOINES, Iowa -- With a treacherous flood in the early 1990s and a stubborn reluctance from residents to stay in the city past working hours, downtown Des Moines had seen its share of plights over the years including another wave of recent flooding.
That all changed in the spring of 2007 when a once lifeless, three-story building became one of the catalysts to breathe life back into Des Moines. Thanks to the vision of area developers and city officials coupled with partial financing from Community Business Lenders LLC, the building has transformed into the Court Center, a bustling entertainment venue home to several trendy restaurants and live music spots.
Located on the corner of Third and Court, the 33,000-square foot Court Center at one point housed a restaurant and office space on the first floor but the second and third floors sat dormant for years, said Mark Kilian, CEO of Community Business Lenders. The CUSO was founded in 2005 by the Iowa Credit Union League, $224 million Community Choice Credit Union $124 million MEMBERS1st Community Credit Union. A Des Moines resident for nearly 30 years, Killian said he was all too familiar with the starts and stops to revitalize downtown.
"The city has been working to redevelop the area for years," Kilian recalled. "It was like taking two steps forward and one-and-a-half back. There were some promising projects planned but they were never executed."
Some of those plans included a movie theater and a large chain book store, he said. Those projects were immediately put on hold when the floods of 1993 swept the Midwest, submerging nine states, killing nearly 50 people and damaging or destroying 55,000 homes, according to the American Red Cross. The entire state of Iowa was declared a disaster area. In all, damage in the affected states totaled $15 billion to $20 billion.
Still, Russ McCullough and David Keller founders of the McKel Group, a commercial development firm, saw the potential to bring downtown Des Moines on par with other similar-sized cities. McCullough said proposals were sent to CBL and other lenders. In the end, the CUSO was either able to beat or meet what others had offered.
"There were many challenges in terms of financing with the state and historic tax credits. You're dealing with all levels of government, which made it challenging and complex," McCullough said. "Mark was adaptable and sharp enough to stick with it."
To make up the investment difference, the developers applied for and were approved to deem the Court Center a National Historic Site from the National Park Service. As a result, some of the renovation expenses were eligible for several tax credits, McCullough said. Financial support also came from the city of Des Moines through low-interest and forgivable loans and tax abatement. CBL created an arrangement that combined all of these elements into one loan package. The entire building was gutted and renovated over a 15-month period. Kilian would not provide the amount CBL financed. Several published reports indicated that the center was a $5 million investment.
Today, the Court Center's first floor is home to Legends American Grill, a sports-themed restaurant and A.K. O'Conner's, an Irish pub. The Liar's Club, an urban bar, is situated on the second floor as well as C.C. Taft and Company, described as a high-end dining experience. The third floor houses People's Court, a bar that hosts live bands.
Since the Court Center's opening, condos, lofts and apartments have sprang up all over downtown--all the rental flats are leased out, said Terry Vorbrich, economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines. Before Court Center, Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, which has 8,500 employees, launched a $30 million river walk project. The three-mile trail along the riverfront is adjacent to Court Avenue, Vorbrich said. Wells Fargo's 12,500-seat Iowa Center is the nearby home to the Iowa Energy, a professional development basketball team, and the Iowa Stars hockey team.
"Des Moines is the capital and business center of the state. The entertainment district has spurred housing," Vorbrich said, adding that before, people would come downtown to work at 7 a.m. and promptly leave the area at 5:00 p.m.
Vorbrich recalled the doubters who wondered if Court Center's developers could find occupants for all three floors.
"There is real demand now to live here, mostly from young professionals coming out of college," he said.
The Iowa Credit Union League is pleased that credit unions played a part in helping to resurrect Des Moines, said Murray Williams, vice president of the league. Once upon a time, developers would only turn to banks for financing but times have drastically changed.
"For credit unions to be able to invest in the center and the center to be the focal point, that's really significant," Williams said. "Here in Iowa, small businesses, for whatever reason, have overlooked credit unions and that's probably why credit unions have not really reached out to small businesses. CBL has bridged that gap."
The Court Center has also become a draw for the state's credit unions. Several have hosted their holiday parties there and the Central Iowa Chapter of Credit Unions held its reception there at People's Court last fall, Kilian said. No one could have predicted the entertainment venue's impact on downtown Des Moines. For CBL, ensuring that the loan package it developed met stringent guidelines was critical.
"It's always our job to exercise due diligence. From a loan structure, we thought it was a prudent project and was in line with lending policies and credit union regulations," Kilian said.
Community Choice CU, one of CBL's owner, saw the experience as a unique connection.
"It was an opportunity for us to get community involvement," said Roger Reiser, president/CEO. "There were certain parties in the transactions that were members of the credit union. It's neat to be involved and to see the city coming back to life."