Des Moines Social Club buyer to spend $3.5 million on renovations, plans speakeasy, coffee shop
The Des Moines Social Club has a buyer, closing the chapter on an innovative nonprofit that worked to restore a historic building in downtown Des Moines but didn't find a sustainable funding model.
Matt Abbott, a Kansas City, Missouri-based developer, has entered into a purchase agreement with the Des Moines Social Club Transition Board of Directors, the board announced Thursday. The $3.1 million sale is subject to approval by the Des Moines City Council at its meeting Monday, and, if approved, will mark the first time in its history that the former fire station will be fully taxed.
Abbott plans to spend a total of $3.5 million renovating the first floor of the main building at 900 Mulberry St. for commercial and retail space, and the second floor as an upscale event space, according to a news release. It said the courtyard would be used for outdoor events, and the Kum & Go Theater Building would be transformed into a "boutique speakeasy concept."
The Malo restaurant on the first floor, which has 13 years left on its lease, will remain, and Abbott intends to bring in a coffee shop, according to city documents. Other tenants have month-to-month leases and would receive 30 days' notice if required to vacate.
It would be Abbott and his companies' first project in Des Moines. He owns Abbott Properties, Abbott Events and Abbott Hospitality Group in Kansas City.
He could not be reached for comment.
"My passion has been repurposing historic buildings to contribute to neighborhoods and to be places of creativity and community," Abbott said in a statement. "With our expertise in restoring historic buildings and creating community gathering places, we are committed to keeping the integrity and the authenticity of the original building and showcase it, while repurposing the space."
The transition board of directors, a group of Des Moines business and civic leaders, was formed in 2019 to reimagine the campus. In its heyday, the club hosted hundreds of community classes, showcased local artists, theater and bands, operated an annual food truck festival and threw annual New Year's Eve party — all at prices low enough to allow people of all income levels to participate.
The board had a $7 million plan to turn it into a year-round indoor market, but abandoned it after a consultant advised it would be too expensive.
The 84-year-old building went on the market in April. After debt, proceeds from the sale will be used to support arts and culture programs in Des Moines.
"While selling the campus was a difficult decision, the sustainability of the historic firehouse and the opportunity to continue to support arts, culture and community have been our top priorities," Rob Feeney, chair of the transition board, said in a statement. "We are very proud to be hitting these priorities and we are extremely confident in the future of this space as we welcome the Abbott team to Des Moines."
Founder hopes Abbott will carry on 'spirit and legacy' of the Social Club
The Des Moines Social Club started in 2008 as a one-of-a-kind nonprofit organization and entertainment venue.
It first operated out of 1408 Grand Ave. before moving to the historic, Deco-style firehouse at 900 Mulberry St. six years later.
The organization purchased the firehouse from the city of Des Moines for $600,000. It invested $6.9 million in renovations, which surpassed its fundraising total by $2.6 million, "causing constant pressure on their operating funds," according to a memo to the Des Moines City Council.
"I'm proud of the work that thousands of Des Moines creatives did to help build it," Zack Mannheimer, a former Social Club executive director, said. "It's my hope that this new group will carry on the spirit and legacy of the Social Club, where people of all backgrounds can come together to invent, create and socialize."
Mannheimer, who left the Social Club in 2015, said he's grateful to see the building put to good use. He was replaced by Peter De Kock and later, Chuck Current.
Despite the club's popularity in the community, and the national attention it garnered, its funding model, which relied on a combination of ticket sales and donations, could not sustain it.
Tax documents from 2019 showed it was $1.4 million in debt.
Renovating the historic building will bring activity to a corner of downtown
When the city sold the landmark building to the Des Moines Social Club, it required that any changes in use and or ownership within 10 years be approved by the Des Moines City Council.
The council's goal was not only to preserve the structure, but to ensure the Social Club wouldn't get a windfall if it ending up selling for more than it invested in renovations, said Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson.
The city won't receive any of the proceeds of the sale, but it is owed $15,000 in payment in lieu of taxes installments that it had waived in exchange for the Social Club's removal of an antenna that was never taken down.
Anderson said Des Moines officials are excited to see an out-of-state developer invest in the capital city, and bring renewed life to a corner of downtown that has seen slowed activity since the Social Club's closure in 2019.
He said he's stopped referring to the building as the Social Club, but rather as the Historic Firehouse No. 1.
"To us that’s the important piece, and the history of it as the Social Club is just a small chapter of that building's life. But unfortunately that era ended a few years ago," Anderson said.
"This building is really important to bring that section of downtown to life. It does kind of serve as a back door into downtown and a big parking area, so it will be nice to get some activity back," he said.
Abbott Properties has a portfolio of properties valued at over $200 million, according to city documents, including historic buildings renovated for use as apartments, hotels, performing arts venues and retail spaces.
Anderson believes Abbott would be the first Kansas City-based developer to work in downtown Des Moines.
"In reviewing their portfolio, it seems to be right in their wheelhouse to do a historic project like this," he said. "I think they're a really good fit."