Des Moines Social Club public market plans 'on hold' after consultants' feedback

Tyler Jett
Des Moines Register

Plans for a robust, year-round market at the Des Moines Social Club are on hold.

Social Club Transition Board Chair Rob Feeney said Wednesday that consultants advised against the plan after visiting the space and meeting with community members. He said the board will now consider other options at the building, located in an old firehouse at 900 Mulberry St.

Members of the board announced plans in September for a space with restaurants, produce stands and pop-up shops that would cost about $7 million. Consultants with Project for Public Spaces, which specializes in public market development, reviewed the proposal. 

“PPS’s primary concern was the financial sustainability of a public market in Historic Firehouse No. 1," Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers said in a statement. "They recommended a model that would require low capital cost and low operating cost. These suggestions, based on their research including community input, are shaping our ongoing discussions about the site.”

Added Feeney: "We've got a great building that we need to find use for. Some of the feedback was, 'This was a use that might be good long term.' But in the short term, we need to be lighter, cheaper, quicker."

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, another board member, said city leaders hoped to capitalize on the success of the city's seasonal outdoor downtown farmers market by creating a large, enclosed space that would be open even during the colder months. The original plan called for construction of a market space between the Social Club and the Kum & Go Theater, its neighbor to the south, in what is now a parking lot.

Not only was the plan expensive. Cownie said, but the consultants were concerned about whether there would be enough remaining parking in the area. They also worried that it couldn't draw enough shoppers to support the investment.

"The experts just kind of said, 'Nope. This is not the concept. Let's look at something better,'" Cownie said.

Under the plan, two existing restaurants in the Social Club building — Scenic Route Bakery, which opened a coffee shop there in September, and Malo, a Latin-themed eatery — were to serve as anchors for the market complex. But the East Village-based bakery closed its Social Club location Dec. 19, according to a news release from the board.

The board said it understood Scenic Route's decision but "remains confident" about the future of the site.

A group of business and community leaders hope to transform the Des Moines Social Club into a year-round public market.
A group of business and community leaders hope to transform the Des Moines Social Club into a year-round public market.

The transition board took control of the Social Club in September after a previous board dissolved amid the nonprofit's financial struggles. Tax documents from 2017 showed it was $1.7 million in debt. It reported net losses of about $1.6 million in 2015, $255,000 in 2016 and $395,000 in 2017.

Zack Mannheimer founded the Social Club in 2008. It moved into its current location — which also features the Kum & Go Theater, a downstairs bar and a rooftop area — in 2014. At its height, the space hosted an annual food truck festival and a New Year's Eve party, keeping prices low to attract more members of the community. 

In addition to Malo, the venue still hosts cooking classes, Iowa Circus Arts, Two Rivers Church, Narcotics Anonymous and the Viaduct Art Gallery.

When the Social Club bought the old firehouse, an investment of $3.5 million was made by Principal Financial, Wells Fargo, Kum & Go and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines in refurbishing the building. Leaders in the businesses and nonprofits believed the space would provide a fun cultural boost for the city, helping to attract more young workers to Des Moines. 

Feeney said the transition board will continue to meet to envision new ideas.

"There's more to come," he said. "We're moving on, kind of, to the next phase of analysis. We're going to be looking at a bunch of different ways to activate the entire campus."

Paul Rottenberg, a board member and the owner of Malo, said the group will recruit more arts organizations to occupy the space, which would align with Mannheimer 's original vision for the space. Rottenberg believes the area could still contain a smaller market.

"There's a lot of potential spaces," he said. "We're finding a lot of interest for the community as we talk to groups. I think it will take 30 to 60 days to circle the wagons."

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Register. Contact him at 515-284-8215 and Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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