by Gigi Wood

JOHNSON COUNTY – It’s been a mix.

The top business deals of 2010 in Johnson County have been like a box of chocolates, an assortment of exuberant rebuilding projects, surprising-yet-welcome business expansions and some disappointing closings.

The positive
It would be difficult to drive through Johnson County and not notice the University of Iowa’s massive new building projects.

One is just getting its start and is the largest Johnson County deal of the year: UI Hospitals and Clinics’ new outpatient facility in the Iowa River Landing (IRL) District near the Coralville Marriott. The $73 million, five-story, 150,000 gross-square-foot medical facility will divert 20 percent of the main hospital’s traffic to the IRL. It will accommodate 300,000 annual patient visits and house 225 staff.

The UI’s $69 million Campus Recreation and Wellness Center at the corner of Burlington and Madison streets has been the buzz of the community since it opened in August.

“When we take recruits through here, they are very impressed and understandably so. This is something you would see at a power school, and they are hoping that they can move that way. They want to win the Big 10,” Wayne Fett, senior associate director of UI Recreational Services, said this past summer of the facility’s new competition pools.

The center’s modern, three-story glass façade serves as a harbinger for future development south of Burlington Street.

One of those future development projects will be the UI’s Voxman/Clapp buildings at Burlington and Clinton streets. The project will replace the music school’s facilities, which were flooded in 2008. There is no price tag for this project yet, or for the rebuilding of Hancher Auditorium, which will be near its previous site. Because project costs for those two buildings have yet to be determined, they could not be included on the top deals list.

In Coralville, the UI Hygienic Laboratory was completed in May. The $37 million building houses scientists and researchers who conduct a variety of public health tests and services for the entire state, including newborn testing, disease outbreak control and biohazard analysis.

In the private sector, there were significant deals and project announcements, as well.

The University of Iowa Community Credit Union announced it plans to build a $25 million, 100,000-square-foot headquarters in North Liberty that will eventually house 400 employees. A group of residents in opposition to tax incentives for the project filed a lawsuit, delaying the plans at least until a court hearing takes place at the start of January.

Iowa City received the federal funding it needed to proceed with a $310 million passenger rail service project to Chicago. Incoming Gov. Terry Branstad and the Legislature will decide in coming months if they will hold up Iowa’s end of the bargain and fund the state matching dollars of roughly $20 million over several years.

New banks opened in the area, as well as a variety of retailers. Simpson Furniture opened in Coralville, Diamond Dreams in Iowa City and several new Hawkeye apparel shops can be found across the area.

Nebulous numbers
Other major deals took place over the year, but because they were by private businesses or dealt with the creation of jobs, exact dollar figures could not be applied.

One of the largest business shifts in Johnson County, for example, was the entrance of out-of-town automotive groups into the area’s car dealership sector. Billion Auto of Sioux Falls, S.D., bought Chezik-Bell’s Honda franchise, McEleney Autoplex and Community Motors. Its new auto campus on Mormon Trek Boulevard, which will be adjacent and connect to the Honda dealership, will sell Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac brands. Billion Auto is the third largest GMC dealer in the country.
Deery Automotive Group, with several dealerships across Eastern Iowa, bought Chezik-Bell Ford Lincoln Mercury on July 1, and rumors abound that it could acquire another dealership at the start of the year.

Thomas Cardella, owner of Thomas L. Cardella & Associates announced in recent weeks plans to create 700 new jobs at call centers in Cedar Rapids, Grinnell and Cedar Falls. Once he saw the price jump on his unemployment tax payments for the upcoming year, he said he would take those jobs to Texas. He is waiting to hear from state officials about possible solutions. The newly created jobs at his Coralville call center will remain.

“Somebody has to put their foot down (on tax increases and the state’s ability to work with businesses),” he said recently.

Meanwhile, one number is certain in this issue: 21. Iowa City voters decided in November to no longer allow 19 and 20 year olds in bars after 10 p.m. Debate on the issue was contentious, with many saying that several downtown bars would close and the area would deteriorate. Advocates said businesses should not be allowed to profit from underage patrons buying alcohol illegally. So far, at least two bars have closed: One-Eyed Jake’s and 808 Restaurant and Nightclub. Whether more bars will close remains to be seen.

At the time, Gerry Ambrose, a local developer who owns several downtown properties, said downtown will lose retailers because of the bar-entry age change.

Bagolitas, the North Liberty-based maker of handbags, saw the home party industry implode and cut its home party business. Janice Baldes, owner of the company, shifted to online sales and hopes to see a rebound in 2011.

The 1907 Winery in West Branch, now called the Brick Arch Winery, collapsed in June. The owners are rebuilding and expect to open in early 2011.

Several businesses in the area announced expansions in 2010.
ACT announced this fall plans to expand into China, where it will more aggressively promote its college placement exams. The expansion will create more jobs in Iowa City, company officials have said.

Mercer Administration’s Iowa City office, at 2610 Northgate Dr., is the benefits administration division of the larger corporation’s consulting and financial services business. The company employs 250 people in Iowa City, with plans to hire another 200 people by 2013. The new positions will be mostly software programmers, analysts and managers.

International Automotive Components (IAC), which produces instrument panels, door panels and armrests for the auto industry, announced in July it is back to pre-recession employment numbers. The plant employs 670 hourly and 75 salary employees. In March 2009, IAC employed 500 workers.

NIS, manufacturing components distributor is expanding into a new facility in North Liberty and hiring 30 to 40 new employees due to an increase in business. It is taking over space River Bend is leaving behind. River Bend, which makes parts for Electrolux washers and dryers, is consolidating its Iowa locations into its building in Victor. The move will save the company money and will include the hiring of about 10 people.

Meanwhile, Racom, a Marshalltown-based company provides communication equipment to police, fire and other public safety departments across the Midwest, opened its first Corridor office in Coralville.

Bochner Chocolates expands its product offerings and started creating collegiate candy bars. The candy bars have become a prominent feature at sporting events and convenience stores throughout the state.

The area learned of several closings, including that of Asoyia, named the Corridor’s Fastest Growing Company in 2008 and placed 13th on the same list a year later. The company produced a zero trans fat cooking oil, made from soybeans with only 1 percent of linolenic acid.

Budcat Creations, a software company in downtown Iowa City that was acquired by Activision in 2008 and was best known for creating video games for Guitar Hero. The larger corporation shuttered Budcat’s doors in November.

McGurk Meyers Motors went from 40 employees to none when it closed in June, two years after it was flooded and a year after Chrysler yanked its franchise. The company was persistent in its attempts to stay open and shifted sales to moped and all-terrain vehicles. It planned to focus on servicing cars to make up the difference.

Smaller retailers, such as Muddy Creek Wine Co. and That’s Rentertainment, also closed this year. Roberts Dairy laid off 25 workers at its Iowa City production plant in the spring.

While 2010 included a combination of positive and negative business news, it will likely be the deals in 2011 that cement Johnson County’s recovery from the flood and the recession.