Downtown Iowa City Targets Women Owned Businesses
Looking for their Home

-Downtown District is seeking businesses to fill new right-sized retail openings

Retail is a key element in the makeup of Downtown Iowa City, and the Downtown District is continuing to invest in the next era of retail. The Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD) will start the next phase of their retail retention and attraction strategy, moving towards specific outreach to targeted entrepreneurs and supporting property owners develop right-sized retail spaces for new tenants.

Since 2014, the ICDD has made retail one of several focal points of the organization. After study and exploration over the last few years, the organization is moving on to its next phase of retail development by targeting a specific growing market of entrepreneurs: women. The District currently has a strong cluster of 59 women-owned and operated businesses, but as a percentage of total businesses downtown, this segment remains underrepresented at roughly 20%.

For many reasons, targeting women-owned businesses as a component of the larger strategy is fitting.  “We know that the growth of female entrepreneurs is on the rise and that data reflects that many women often need to be directly invited. We also know that women are driving soft good retail trends, so why not be deliberate in our invitation to join us and open the portal to downtown location opportunities?” said the Iowa City Downtown District’s Executive Director, Nancy Bird.

“Additionally, we have something to offer here that many places can’t touch with the spirit of community and collaboration that exists among our businesses in downtown Iowa City.  It’s a unique culture. These women are supporting each other every way they can – be it through hosting collaborative events, showcasing each other’s work, or mentoring newcomers with their business and marketing strategies”, said Bird.

According to Michelle Galvin, owner of Velvet Coat, a long-standing women’s clothing boutique on the pedestrian mall, much of the retention in many of the women-owned businesses downtown is due in part to their efforts to evolve their store to market trends. Recently, this has meant new partnerships between local e-commerce entrepreneurs and brick and mortar storefronts. Velvet Coat forged a partnership with online fashion retailer Written last fall.  Written, a Cedar Rapids start-up founded by Emily Carlson, is an example of how the introduction of new technology has allowed Written’s signature pencil skirt to compliment Galvin’s in-store offerings.

So, why now? While downtown Iowa City continues to have a very low vacancy rate, currently sitting at 3.5%, a generational shift is also occurring Downtown. “We’re seeing some retirements, new family members step up to carry on institutional retail positions, and an entrepreneurial side to restaurant expansions. While it’s true that the era of retail as we once knew it is over, this next generation of Downtown business owners are taking advantage of technology and creating connections with their clientele in more meaningful ways”, said Nancy Bird.

Downtown property owners are also responding to the trends by right-sizing their spaces for the current market climate. More retail bays are coming on line that are better suited for today’s retail needs. Peter and Kurt Vanderhoef of Iowa Book are currently looking at the opportunity to reconfigure the Iowa Book LLC space to adapt to changing trends and reposition the store for the next generation. As publishers shift to sell textbooks direct to students, the Vanderhoefs are using the downturn in this industry to look towards the future of the business and property. The Vanderhoefs are exploring adding several new retail bays that open up onto Iowa Avenue and reducing the current store footprint by half.  “There is a pretty consistent retail demand for 1,500 square feet. Some of our downtown properties need to be reconfigured to meet this expectation or those tenants will go elsewhere,” said Bird.

In light of new developments with several key properties and the organization’s step into the next phase of the Downtown District’s retail strategy, the ICDD has decided to host vacancy information on that may not be listed on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) as a way to better expose those available “retail-right” opportunities. Those interested in finding a space downtown will be able to review available spaces online and contact Bird directly, who will continue to work with commercial brokers and property representatives by passing on leads to ensure the best placement of tenants.

“We want to deliberately invite entrepreneurs looking for a brick and mortar location to explore locations downtown and continue to broadcast that 90% of retail sales still occur in storefronts. With new commercial bays coming online and the rich history of our long-standing merchants that have supported the city’s core for decades, we know we need to continue to actively welcome new business interests”, said Bird.


For more


Nancy Bird, Executive Director, Iowa City Downtown District- 319-354-0863; 

Michelle, Galvin, owner of Velvet Coat; (319) 887-7151