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SL an economic oasis... but what's next for business around Awaysis?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

While the national economy is pumping the brakes like a semi on a downhill run, Storm Lake's development hopes seemingly aren't letting up on the gas.

"Despite what is happening on a national basis, our housing market continues to be strong, our retail sector continues to be very strong," said Gary Lalone, CEO of the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Need evidence? Storm Lake's retail sales rose approximately 13 percent in the most recent annual report - at a time when the state as a whole saw just a 1.9 percent increase, he said.

The chamber continues to field contacts from individuals and companies looking to start businesses in Storm Lake, he said.

"There is quite a bit of interest, and the national economy hasn't seemed to dampen that," Lalone said.

Residents continue to look to the business area directly across from the $39 million Awaysis tourism development, wondering if that area will be next to see an explosion of development.

"The area has a lot of potential, but with the economy, investors may be pretty cautious," said Jim Bauer, who has obtained the property between Casey's and the Knights of Columbus Hall, directly across from the popular waterpark.

"The north side of the highway needs to be started by somebody, but who? When someone gets the ball rolling, a lot could happen along there - like a domino effect."

An ideal first step would be for the community to petition Casey's to build one of its new expanded stores, Bauer feels.

"McDonalds is looking, Subway is looking, this area would also be a good place for another restaurant. We have to begin somewhere."

Bauer has been approached by parties interested in turning his property into an informal smokehouse barbecue restaurant and bar with outdoor seating, to be operated seasonally similar to the popular Barefoot Bar at Okoboji, and that is still a possibility, he said.

Vance Hadenfeld, owner of a longtime skating rink across from the Awaysis site, said that there has been interest in purchasing and developing his area off and on, but that the economy and regulation may make a sale difficult at this time.

One plan to preserve the skating rink and add rides outdoors and indoors in a former dance bar building nearby fell through when the developer became impatient and decided to go elsewhere. Another developer drew up a plan for a series of retail shops and a restaurant with a motel on the second story above and an entertainment complex inside. The idea stalled, but the developer's plan was given to Hadenfeld, and on to the city, to use if another developer decides to pick up the project.

Instead, over the past several days, Hadenfeld has brought in four children's amusement rides on his own and placed them in his parking lot, with tickets at $2. He has mini golf and an arcade inside.

"If I was a younger man instead of being in my 70s, I wouldn't be selling land in this location, I'd be trying to buy it," he says.

"Development will come," he said, noting that developers who had plans for his property earlier cited the development of the lodge hotel, waterpark and other Awaysis features as prime reasons for looking at Storm Lake.

"It'll happen, it's just that investors are pretty squeamish right now. I have to assume that I won't be selling at this time, so I'm bringing in the rides - you never know until you try it."

The skating rink itself is not operating. Hadenfeld's wife is recovering from retina reattachment surgery, and they are keeping options open on possibly resuming skating next winter.

At one point, several site owners along that area agreed to list their properties together on a website, he said, to see if there were any bites on a large development for the whole area. That hasn't come to fruition, but the owners did all basically agree on the value of their sites, at roughly a million dollars an acre, Hadenfeld said.

Chamber leader Lalone said it will be up to each site owner to determine whether they would be prepared to sell, and what they feel the sites are worth. Regardless, the chamber would be prepared to work with owners and potential developers.

"The sky is the limit on what that area could change to," he said.

It could potentially become a series of upscale or tourism-related retail shops, or an entertainment venue with businesses like miniature golf and cart racing, or it could see another major hotel or motel development - or some combination, he feels.

But the Awaysis area isn't the only part of Storm Lake seeing interest.

Men's and women's clothing and sporting goods are a few of the types of retail businesses currently looking at Storm Lake, but sometimes such developments are not of the overnight variety. "We have one prospective business that has been looking to start here for four years," Lalone said.

One issue - vacant Storm Lake store sites are few and far between, and land inside the city limits is pretty tight.

"Some people have been looking, and not finding a lot of options," Lalone said.

Residents are not without their frustrations, notably about the Regency Condominiums building site on the city's glf course, which after a promising start has sat untouched for almost a year and is now cloaked in high weeds.

"Absolutely people are getting frustrated. Here we had a great looking project in a high-visability area, and it is becoming just an eyesore," Lalone said. "I think eventually someone will realize the potential there and pick that project up. The location is just too good not to have something positive happen, and since it is already all set up for a condominium development, I can't believe there won't be a major upheaval there."

Although new business hasn't sprung up immediately around the King's Pointe site, Lalone feels the situation in Storm Lake has fulfilled the promise of growth and jobs layed out in a pre-Awaysis economic study.

"From the time of conception, we have to remember that that before Awaysis, a Walgreens store wasn't happening, furniture ad flooring stores weren't happening. The retail people tell me they can really see the difference in people shopping at their stores," Lalone says.

In the same time period, a new State Marina has come to fruition, a vacant former Wal-Mart is being transformed into a business village, a long-vacant spec building in the industrial park has been put to retail use, a new bank is nearing completion.

"The whole town is starting to buzz," Lalone said. "I'm excited about downtown. We are starting to make great use of the upstairs floors of this district, with apartment spaces being upgraded, businesses and offices going upstairs and even things like the new Lake Avenue Lounge and a banquet hall brining new life to the upper level. It is going back to the way it was years ago, when doctor's offices and all sorts of things made use of the top level."

Compared to five years ago, before Awaysis, Storm Lake is a different community, he feels.

"We continually see people looking to do new things, and we see growth is a lot of different ways. Storm Lake is generating a lot of attention, and now it is all positive attention," he said.

"We have a fantastic new grade school going up, a great marina, a big expansion of the hospital - huge things, huge investments. Would these things have happened with or without Awaysis? We can't be sure - but we do know that not much was happening before Awaysis happenened.

"We are in a time with a lot of opportunity. Compared to most of the rest of the country, we are very fortunate."

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