Once Shattered by Tornado, Marshalltown is Rising

Note: Article originally published in the Des Moines Register on March 14, 2019

MARSHALLTOWN, Ia. — The lights at Zeno's Restaurant are back on.

The neon sign that has glowed from the beloved pizza shop for 44 years was turned off for the first time July 19, 2018, when an EF-3 tornado ripped through downtown, tearing roofs off buildings, shattering storefront windows and collapsing brick walls. It took nearly eight months and hundreds of light bulbs, but Zeno's owners were able to flip the switch on the iconic 8-foot-tall sign in late February, bringing it back to its former glory. Its return highlights broader recovery efforts in Marshalltown's commercial district: Yes, there's progress. But it will take more time for the city of 27,552 to recover from the tornado's widespread damage

"I think everyone wishes it was a lot further along than it is," said Martha Green, a contract architect hired by the state to help assess the city's damage and recommend recovery steps. "It's going to take several years for Marshalltown to get back."

Preservation Iowa has listed the Marshalltown Historic District — buildings constructed between the 1860s and 1940s — as the most endangered property in the state. It's the first time the nonprofit has listed an entire downtown on its annual list of Iowa buildings most in need of saving.

The tornado damaged nearly every building in downtown Marshalltown. Sixteen have been fully or partially demolished. At least four more may ultimately come down. 

Marshall County Courthouse is shrouded in plastic tarps and scaffolding. County officials say it's taking longer to repair water damage to the 133-year-old structure than initially expected. 

But that's not to say work hasn't been done elsewhere.

Nearly all the restaurants and bars that closed immediately after the tornado are back open, serving food and drinks to Marshalltown's loyal customers. (It took nearly four months for Zeno's Restaurant to reopen, without their neon sign.) Other building owners are working with insurance providers to figure out their next steps. 

City leaders are working on a master plan for downtown that will dictate what happens to buildings that are beyond repair. Ideas include adding pocket parks and new parking where buildings once stood. 

"Even though this was a really horrendous thing to have happened, it's also developed some tremendous opportunities that we didn't have before," said Jenny Etter, executive director of the Marshalltown Central Business District.

Reopening after the tornado

Late on the afternoon on July 19, a cold front brought in thunderstorm supercells that spawned 13 tornadoes throughout the state. A pair of EF-3 tornadoes with wind speeds that reached 144 mph swept through Pella and Marshalltown, while a less powerful EF-2 tornado struck Bondurant. Marshalltown suffered the most widespread damage. The tornado coursed through downtown, toppling part of the historic Marshall County Courthouse

Nearly all of the 215 buildings in downtown Marshalltown sustained damage in the storm. Eight months later, Etter estimates about 60 percent of the buildings are back to normal. The embroidery shop In Stitches was one of the first to return. Terri Shetler and her husband Dennis were able to partially reopen their shop a week after the storm. The tornado shattered their store windows, leaving glass lodged in the carpet and destroying their inventory, but the building on East Main Street didn't sustain much structural damage, Shetler said. The Shetlers used the space to catch up on their embroidery work during those first few months. They fully replaced their inventory and were open to the public in late November.

Down a few blocks, the owner of Main Street Antiques reopened her shop over Labor Day weekend. Located on the first floor of a four-story building, Monica Smith's store was damaged by heavy rain that followed for weeks after the tornado. She spent months cleaning mold, soot and assorted debris from carpets and sorting through the antiques she could salvage and sell. Though Main Street Antiques is open, there are plenty of complications.

The building is covered from top to bottom in scaffolding. Windows are still boarded to protect her store from the top floor, which is so damaged it will need to be demolished. Any time it rains or snows, moisture seeps into the store. The harsh winter has slowed progress outside.

"The hardest part for us has been people knowing that we're still here, that we haven't moved or we haven't shut down," said Smith, adding that she has seen a drop in business. "It's been tough."

'We're tired'

Main Street Antiques shares the building with McGregor's Furniture. The longtime furniture store has additional space in a three-story building to the west. Erin McGregor and her family own both buildings. They've worked furiously to reopen the furniture store, but winter weather set the family back weeks. The tornado caused a wall to fall. McGregor replaced four of the buildings' five roofs, installed nine new AC units, two new furnaces and re-carpeted the smaller of the company's building. 

Demolition work continues. Bricks are being removed from the top floor one-by-one, but workers can't be on the scaffolding in high winds. Work on the interior can't be completed until the top floor is taken down. Both buildings were constructed in 1880, so the repairs are expensive. A brick wall cost McGregor $90,000 to reconstruct. She will spend thousands to re-do the facade so it appears historically similar to the original. Her insurance provider estimates it will cost $1.2 million to fully recover and she hopes to open McGregor's Furniture at its original downtown location by the anniversary of the tornado.

Another building to the east, which once housed a yogurt shop and later a dry cleaner, will likely be demolished. Its roof was torn off and it was not watertight before a deluge of rain came weeks after the tornado.

"It's going to change our side of the street drastically," McGregor said.

Some have given up on repairing their older downtown buildings. The owners of Ecklor's Center Street Laundromat decided instead to build new about three blocks east of downtown. Just a shell remains of the former business, said Christine Ecklor, who owns the laundromat with her husband Shane.

The Ecklors, who also own 15 rental properties, have spent their time and energy gutting and reconstructing 10 that were damaged in the storm. They're hoping to sell their downtown building as-is to someone willing to demolish it and start over.

"We don't want to mess with tearing it down because we're tired," Christine Ecklor said.

About four other buildings have yet to be demolished. Etter, the Main Street director, expects that 20 will be lost in all. The courthouse, too, is taking significantly longer than county officials expected. Its iconic spire and clock tower was toppled, and the storm set off the building's sprinkler system. Contractors have uncovered more damage and unique challenges because of the building's age. It was completed in 1886. The courthouse should open in the fall, Marshall County Auditor Nan Benson said in a news release. 

'Every dime is needed'

As with the courthouse, many owners have run into problems unique to historic buildings. Often there's the cost of things like asbestos removal or code upgrades, Etter said. Some, like the Ocean City Chinese Restaurant and the Sub City sandwich shop, are fully open, but there's more to do to restore the historic facades. 

The storm tore off metal siding from Ocean City, revealing intricate pillars and engravings of an old bank. Insurance money covered the business so it could reopen, but Etter said it did not provide money to restore the historic facade.

To help fill those gaps, the Iowa Economic Development Authority is giving Marshalltown a $1 million grant through its Community Catalyst Building Remediation Program, the state agency announced Wednesday. Building owners must apply for a portion of the grant money. Etter estimates the money could help complete about five projects.

"We're really thankful for that," she said. "Every dime is needed. And these projects are not small."

IEDA also has approval to provide emergency funds through its High Quality Jobs program. It typically requires the addition or retention of new, high-paying jobs to qualify for tax credits. But emergency provisions allow for IEDA to award credits to companies in distressed areas outside of the state's normal requirements.

Marshalltown's RACOM Corporation was recently given $190,000 in tax credits to help with $6.35 million in storm damage repairs. State officials are working with Lennox International Inc. — a company so damaged that city officials were concerned it wouldn't rebuild — on a proposal for financial help.

The Iowa Finance Authority also announced Wednesday it would allocate $1 million to Marshalltown as part of its Main Street Loan Program. The low-interest loan is reserved for the rehabilitation of upper-level housing or commercial properties. 

'Marshalltown will come back from this'

In the meantime, city officials are working with a development team to create a master plan for the newly empty spaces downtown. The city was given a $200,000 grant to hire SEH Urban Design, which is working to complete a plan by June.

"We're hoping as many buildings come down, the owners can redevelop and build new," said City Administrator Jessica Kinser. "We recognize that's not going to be possible in every area, and not every owner is going to want to do that."

Infill lots could be made into pocket parks or parking lots. They could also be reserved for new development such as a boutique hotel or apartments. The plan will help owners on the fence decide what they may or may not want to do with their properties, Kinser said. But it's also a long-term plan for the city to follow.

Planners are looking at eliminating one-way streets downtown, adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks, changing parking configurations and incorporating new street signs, landscaping and public art. One idea is to create a pocket neighborhood on the north end of downtown with 13 detached cottage homes surrounding a community garden.

Officials are optimistic about Marshalltown's future.

Etter sees the tornado — "heinous" as it was — as the impetus to bring the city back to a place better than it was before. Downtown had its challenges before the storm, and its damage gave owners an opportunity to make improvements that were planned long ago, she said. 

"It brings new life to a lot of these buildings that were looking kind of down on the heel," Etter said. "First, people were devastated and in shock. And now people are pretty optimistic."

Still, the damage to and loss of Marshalltown's historic buildings was traumatic to preservationists and history buffs across the state. One such building, the Fantles Department Store building at 2-4 West Main Street, was torn down. At 149 years old, it was one of the oldest on Marshalltown's square.

"There will never be another Fantles Building. That's a huge loss," said Smith, the antique store owner. 

"Marshalltown will come back from this. It just won’t be the same Marshalltown that it was."

What about the homes that were hit?

The tornado's destruction went well beyond Marshalltown's business district, damaging more than 900 homes across the city.  As of late February, 42 homes have been demolished. The city has applied for assistance from FEMA to cover the demolition costs of 60 more. 

Eight months removed from the storm, city officials continue to assess where those residents ended up. The city did not receive many requests for temporary housing in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, said City Administrator Jessica Kinser. 

The Marshalltown Community School District is down 90 students over last, though officials can't say those students were all tornado victims.

"There is just sort of a question of 'Where did people go?' And we haven't been able to put that together," Kinser said.

Habitat for Humanity is planning a "blitz build" in April to help rebuild homes. It needs to raise $1 million to meet its goal of 100 homes.