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Salvaging a Pearl Near the Muscatine Riverfront PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 21 September 2004 18:00
Tom Meeker has a folksy charm, speaking in a low voice that can sound gruff and clipped on the phone but is transformed when you meet him in person. His face is open and warm, and he comes off as one of the friendliest people on the planet.

His wife, Ann, noted that his manner has been a key to his success. “His personality goes along with this,” she said. “He gets along with literally everybody.”

Hyperbole aside, you only need to walk through “this” – Pearl Plaza, which takes up almost the entire 200 block of Muscatine’s West Second Street on the river side – with the Meekers to understand what she means. Tom and Ann Meeker greet storeowners by name and seem to have a strong rapport with them. But, more importantly, there’s Pearl Plaza itself – a magnificent development that turned empty 150-year-old buildings into a shopping destination. The seven building are now a stunning collection of interesting and interconnected shops, offices, and apartments/condos. The first floor is all retail, while the second floor includes both stores and offices.

It’s a year-old venture with atmosphere and charm to spare, and it could be instructive to downtown interests in the Quad Cities and elsewhere. The Meekers developed Pearl Plaza on their own, without looking for a handout, essentially trying to spark a downtown revitalization on their own.

The Labyrinthine Living Room

“When I started, nobody wanted these buildings,” said Tom Meeker of the seven properties that became Pearl Plaza.

“Considering the condition of the buildings, it’s been a real plus for the community,” said Steve Boka, Muscatine’s building and zoning administrator.

Madd Creek Mercantile & Bistro was the first business to move into Pearl Plaza, even though at that point no larger vision had been articulated. Charlee King Adams opened the antiques, gifts, and linen store at 216 West Second Street about two and a half years ago, 18 months before Pearl Plaza in its current incarnation debuted. She added desserts and coffees six months after opening, and a tea room roughly a year ago.

“I have really good vision when it comes to old things,” King Adams said of her store/restaurant, which had a “funky ‘For Rent’ sign” in the window when she leased it and had most recently been used as a tanning salon. “I could see this building had a lot of potential.”

But she didn’t see the bigger picture, she said. “I had no idea,” she said. “Neither did Tom. Nobody had any idea this [Pearl Plaza] was going to happen.”

Then the Meekers continued to collect nearby properties. “One at a time, they bought these buildings,” King Adams said of the Meekers.

Pearl Plaza now has three office, eight retail, and six condo tenants. The Meekers said they’re talking to two additional retailers.

“My vision for this place was a big living room,” King Adams said of her store.

That “living room” atmosphere pervades the entire Pearl Plaza complex, contributed both by the types of businesses there and the layout. Along with Madd Creek, Just Because Gifts & Home Accessories, Mitai (import gifts, most of them fair-trade), and Annsarts (specializing in pearl-button jewelry) are all stuffed with interesting gift items, while the Crazy Girl yarn shop is bright with all the colors of the rainbow. The Hall Tree provides upscale fashions, and even the attorney’s office is filled with curiosities, antiques, and ephemera, including a table dedicated to old adding machines.

The configuration of the space contributes to the feel. Because these are seven structurally distinct buildings connected by 37 archways, one retail space sometimes leads right into another, and patrons might be able to see the ArtSpace of Muscatine gallery directly across from them without any obvious way to get there. You could possibly get lost in Pearl Plaza.

“I knew right away this was going to be something special,” King Adams said. “And it is something special.”

“We wanted to bring the higher class downtown,” Tom Meeker said. “We sort of created a little neighborhood,” added Ann Meeker.

Tom Meeker noted that Pearl Plaza has drawn a steady stream of tourists – somewhere between 35 and 50 groups of 25 to 30 people each. That includes “I bet every Red Hat Society in the entire area,” said Ann Meeker. “We have a lot of Quad Cities people coming,” her husband said.

King Adams said she tracks her customers, and 86 percent come from out-of-town. “Muscatine is still finding out about us,” she said.

No Return on Investment

Other developers might have looked at the collection of old buildings and seen obstacles and problems – such as the difficulty in connecting and separating spaces from individual buildings in a conventional manner. Certainly, many people reacted with disbelief when told what the Meekers were planning. “Are you out of your mind?” Ann recalled people asking. “We had a lot of skeptical people,” Tom said.

The Meekers appear to deal with such roadblocks at they come to them. The connective archways, he claimed, were essentially accidents that worked well, and the design was revised throughout construction. A vault door was hung on a brick wall, covering a bricked-up window, and artifacts from the old building act as conversation pieces and artwork in Pearl Plaza.

Tom Meeker retired at age 46 after more than 26 years at Monsanto. In his retirement, he’s developed more than 20 buildings in Muscatine. He was born and raised in the Muscatine area, and Ann moved to the area in 1975 and has lived in the city since 1988.

They’re dedicated to the Muscatine community, and driven by an interest in the community reaching its potential. “We’ve got a lot to offer, but we can be the best,” Tom said of Muscatine. The same philosophy applied to this block of downtown. Although it’s only a short distance from expensive homes, “this was the worst block” downtown, he said. “There’s no reason this wasn’t the best block.”

The couple started small, developing individual buildings, getting rental income, and moving on to other properties. He bought 13 buildings, fixed them up, and rented them with the help of an investor that he preferred not to name.

It’s important to note that the Meekers claim they aren’t making money yet – “All the money goes right back into the buildings,” he said – and neither is their investor. “He has no anticipation of return on his investment,” Tom Meeker said.

The Meekers also won’t disclose how much money was spent on Pearl Plaza, only saying that it was a multi-million-dollar project.

The merchants in Pearl Plaza certainly won’t appeal to everybody – it’s geared toward women, particularly those with an interest in collectibles and arts and crafts – yet it serves as a wonderful example of how the private sector can spearhead downtown revitalization without much in the way of subsidies. The Meekers didn’t get any money from the City of Muscatine or any other entity, although they did get tax incentives, Boka said.

The Meekers stressed that they got a lot of help from many people, including advice on code compliance from the city. “You have to have the community behind you,” Tom said.

Pearl Plaza is not part of a larger revitalization plan in Muscatine, but it has happened concurrent with one. The city received $1 million from the Iowa Community Attractions & Tourism (CAT) program two years ago, a contribution that’s facilitating $9.6 million in riverfront improvements, from a completed skate park and aquatic center to in-progress infrastructure improvements and an environmental learning center. The city has also undertaken streetscaping, signage, and flower baskets downtown.

Boka said the city’s revitalization plan was approved in 1997, and the CAT program gave Muscatine “an opportunity to consolidate … and attack it all at once.”

He added that although Pearl Plaza and the city’s efforts aren’t related, they can feed off each other. “I think they’re intertwined,” he said. “We like to think they’re driving each other.”

Even though they’re fixing up old buildings, the Meekers don’t consider themselves preservationists. The couple stresses the difference between historic preservation, restoration, and what they’re doing, which Ann calls “economic re-use.” While they’re sensitive to the historic nature of some of the structures, their primary aim is to get the building in condition to be rented, leased, or bought. “I’m going to do it so it can be used and look good,” Tom Meeker said.

Tom added that working with old buildings has its disadvantages. “I can see why the downtowns are going down,” he said. “It takes a lot of money.” Ann noted that building codes aren’t friendly to older structures, and bringing them up to code is often prohibitively expensive.

But the Meekers are moving forward. A second phase of Pearl Plaza development – an 8,400-square-foot restaurant with a seating capacity of 450 people – is currently planned. The Meekers are presently doing exterior work on the building between Pearl Plaza and the river. They hope to get roughly 35 local investors and plan to share an executive chef with The Drake restaurant in Burlington. Tom Meeker said he expects the restaurant to open in spring 2005.

That project shows how strongly the couple believes in community buy-in. Tom Meeker said they’ve turned down potential investors from other communities, for one thing. Yet he also recognizes that this business model should result in “300 to 400 people who come because they know someone who owns a piece of this,” Tom said.

It’s a combination of altruism and good business sense.
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