Originally published in the fall 2014 issue of VISIONS
Written by Steve Sullivan. Photos by Jim Heemstra
When the state of Iowa prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants in 2008, the crew at Welch Avenue Station took action.
They removed everything from the walls of the longtime Campustown oasis. The neon beer signs. The music posters. The Iowa State memorabilia. All of it. After years of nicotine were scrubbed away, the walls were repainted as close to the same color as they had been for as long as anyone could remember. Then the Welch Avenue gang put everything back on the walls, hanging each sign and picture exactly where it had been, even using the exact same nail holes.
“Alumni come back to town and come in and say the place hasn’t changed a bit,” says Mike Adams, Welch Avenue bar manager since 1996. “It has, but it feels the same.”
This bit of tavern lore offers an apt metaphor for the challenge now facing Campustown: How to hold tight to the district’s diverse character, while embracing the opportunities presented by significant change.
And significant change is most definitely coming to Iowa State’s Campustown.
A Campustown renaissance
Kim Hanna, director of the Campustown Action Association (CAA), does not hesitate to use the “r” word when talking about what’s happening in the nine-block district that for more than 100 years has been a hang-out for Iowa State students, staff, and alumni drawn to the bars, restaurants, hair salons, T-shirt shops, book stores, movie theaters, tattoo parlors, and much more.
“We’re seeing the biggest wave of investment in Campustown by the city and university in years,” she says. “This is the renaissance of Campustown.”
This so-called renaissance is driven primarily by Kingland Systems, a software and data-management company started in the ISU Research Park by founder David Kingland (L)(’80 industrial administration). The company moved to the old Ames Theater space on Lincoln Way in 2004, tightening the bond with its biggest pool of employees: Iowa State students.
The old theater was one of nine buildings on the 2400 block of Lincoln Way owned for decades by the Champlin family of Ames. Kingland purchased all nine in 2012, launching a redevelopment project that will alter the landscape of Campustown, and quite possibly the very personality of the district.
“We are excited about this being our permanent home in Ames,” says Todd Rognes (A)(’85 accounting), Kingland president. “We believe this area can attract college students and professionals alike, and we hope our project demonstrates that Campustown is an area for the entire community.”
Birth of a district
The late A.L. Champlin is considered by many to be the father of Campustown. In 1908, he built the area’s first brick building at the corner of Lincoln Way and Welch Avenue. It was the entry point to what would eventually become today’s Campustown. During its long history, the building housed a grocery store, a drug store, a dance hall (in the years before Memorial Union), and various eating and drinking establishments, including People’s Bar and Grill, which energized Iowa State’s live music scene in the 1990s.
Over the years, Champlin built more structures along the 2400 block of Lincoln Way, including the Ames Theater. Champlin constructed it in 1919 after the city lifted a ban on theaters near campus.
The 2400 block itself has hosted the occasional residence and a variety of businesses, including the Varsity Theater, Student Supply Store, and the Maji Jewelry Store. The strip has also been home at one time or another to long-defunct restaurants with names like Cyclone Lunch, College Inn, Mother’s Kitchen, L-Way Café, Baxter’s Bar and Grill, and Serpico Pizza.
The Champlin buildings are now gone, demolished in May 2014 to make way for the Kingland project, which Rognes hopes will provide “a positive lift in attitude and appearance to Campustown.”
A retail tenant, CVS/pharmacy, will occupy a portion of the new three-story structure going up at the corner of Lincoln and Welch. Kingland plans to use about
a third of the remaining new space for its growing business. Iowa State also has plans to use a significant amount of the new space for staff offices. The entire ground level will be available to retail tenants.
Kingland expects to eventually have more than 300 employees working in Campustown. Rognes acknowledges that some may view the project as an office space takeover of the district. But, he points out, the project also “actually increases the amount of retail space from its previous state. We engaged with many parties as we designed our project, including the city, CAA, the Champlin family, and Iowa State to design a project that will draw people to Campustown for a multitude of reasons. This project can support Campustown in becoming a district that is well-rounded and full of a variety of offerings.”
Lynn Lloyd, the granddaughter of A.L. Champlin and former co-owner of the Lincoln Way buildings, knows all too well the toll that business turnovers, upkeep of aging buildings, and competition from other areas of the city have taken on Campustown.
“We had 17 bars at one time,” she says. “There’s no way that many bars can make it now.”
While the brick-and-mortar buildings represented a wealth of Champlin family history, Lloyd feels as exhilarated as she does bittersweet about their demise.
“I hope new and interesting and exciting things happen for the students, and that this also inspires other parts of Campustown to develop,” she says. “My grandfather would be happy to see all this. He didn’t believe in sentimentality.”
Campustown has been going through a gradual transformation for several years, spurred by increasing Iowa State enrollment.
There are 20 apartment buildings with 501 units in the district as of June 1, 2014. More than half of those units were built in the last decade. Many of the new buildings feature retail space.
More housing is on the way. In May 2014, Campus Book Store, at the corner of Lynn Avenue and Lincoln Way and directly across from campus, was demolished to make room for The Foundry, a six-story structure with 53 rental units and groundlevel retail space. It is slated to be completed in August 2015.
Just up the street, a small building that most recently housed a coffee shop (Lorry’s, which has since moved to West Street where it shares space with Mother’s Pub, which was once home to Boheme Bistro and before that the gone-but-fondly remembered Dugan’s Deli) was torn down. A bank building next to it also was razed. The site will now be home to 23 Twenty Lincoln, a 320-bed student housing complex. 23 Twenty will also have retail space, as well as the kind of amenities that get the HGTV crowd oohing and aahing: granite counter tops, walk-in closets, enclosed courtyard with a hammock garden, fire pit, and outdoor barbecue kitchen. Oh, and there’s also a coffee bar and fitness center with a tanning room.
On Chamberlain Street, just off Welch Avenue, yet another building offering eight units with 40 bedrooms, as well as retail space, is going up.
The Campustown student housing boom has, at least to this point, had little impact on the retail environment of Campustown. While a few new establishments have popped up, the district remains a collection of primarily locally grown businesses housed in aging buildings that are owned by a mix of area and long-distance landlords. With all the new retail space coming, the CAA has a long wish list for the district: a grocery store, an 80-seat restaurant, and a combination performance and cinema space.
“Campustown has thousands of students and hundreds of residents, but we are missing so many services,” Hanna says. “We want regional and national chains moving into the district, but we also want a mix of local businesses and chains to keep our diversity alive.”
Diversity is a huge component of the Campustown personality, and one that many fear will be diminished. A bright and shiny 2400 block of Campustown facing Lincoln Way runs the risk of making the 2500 block look like an ugly cousin. (The city has recently made grant money available for façade renovation.) With its row of older buildings, each with its own distinct curb appeal, housing ethnic eateries, a comic book store, a tanning salon, and more than one hairstyling establishment, the block arguably has more of a “lived-in” look that you might expect from a campus town.
“They are missing the whole point of Campustown if they are going to tear it down and give it a facelift,” says Rob Josephson, who opened Mayhem comic book store in 1990. “Looks are one thing, but it’s the businesses that draw people. Who wants to come to a campus town that’s all office space?”
“We’re happy to see a fresh look coming to Campustown. The rundown look can chase people away,” says Welch Avenue’s Adams. “But I’d hate to see the character of the place go. You need more than apartment buildings and big box stores.”
Matthew Goodman (’96 chemistry, MS ’00), both a Campustown restaurateur and a member of Ames City Council, hopes “we can maintain the incredible diversity of ownership and incubator nature of Campustown. I think we have more foreign-owned restaurants per square foot than any place in Iowa. If our choices destroy the unique cultural fabric, then we’ve failed. It’s going to take vision and courage to maintain this. It’s the only district like this in town. This is it. If you gussy it up too much to the point of it being sterile you’ve really lost something.”
All anyone can do right now is wait and see what the impact of the new developments will be. In the meantime, contractors and cranes will be busy along Lincoln Way. Visitors to the district will continue to stop by Stomping Grounds for a latte, University Barbers for a trim, and Mayhem for the latest installment of “The Avengers.”
But there’s no avoiding this fact: The Champlin buildings are history, and in Campustown, a new era is has begun.
Ames freelancer Steve Sullivan counts a Dugan’s Deli T-shirt among his most cherished possessions.