Biz Buzz: The 1909 train depot was recently called one of the most endangered buildings in Des Moines. Now, a group of history buffs have a plan to save it.

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Tim Waddell figured he had to act fast.

A history buff, Waddell for years had wanted to restore the 1909 train depot hidden among scrappy industrial buildings in Des Moines’ East Village.

In recent months, the wrecking ball started to seem more imminent. Developers were beginning to pay big bucks for land in the quickly gentrifying area known as the Market District. There was nothing to stop an investor from buying the depot at 120 E. Fifth St. and flattening it to make room for a new apartment complex or office.

“I thought it had just a few months to survive,” Waddell said of the 108-year-old brick depot. “It was a shark tank in the Market District. Developers were buying up land. …Prices were skyrocketing in every direction.”

So Waddell and some fellow preservation advocates formed a group called the Des Moines Heritage Trust. They are trying to buy the train depot and turn it into a local history museum and event space.

The Des Moines Heritage Trust needs to raise $500,000 by the end of June to purchase the building. The city of Des Moines and Polk County have agreed to give grants of $250,000 and $150,000, respectively, and the group plans to seek private donations for the remaining $100,000.  

Renovating the depot property is expected to cost $3.5 million. The Heritage Trust wants to repair the brick building, rebuild its porte-cochere and construct an assembly hall with a catering kitchen. Waddell, vice chairman of the group, said he plans to spend 2017 raising money for the project and hopes to start construction in 2018.

When complete, the depot could host weddings and other events and would offer meeting space and a gallery for local history groups that have no permanent home.

Wadell, who works at the Iowa Economic Development Authority for his day job, points out that Des Moines is one of the only cities in the metro area without its own history museum. 

The Des Moines Heritage Trust’s scramble to save the depot highlights how quickly the Market District — an industrial area sandwiched between East Court Avenue and East Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway —  is changing. 

 A recycling business and a stone company are set to be replaced by apartment complexes. A new office is under construction. A brewery taproom has opened. And officials are considering the still-gritty neighborhood as a site for the a $137 million federal courthouse. 

More: Des Moines Public Works plans to move from Market District, build $70 million facility

In 2015, the Des Moines Rehabbers Club, another preservation group, called the train depot one of the seven most endangered buildings in the city. 

The 2,000-square-foot depot is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated a landmark, so there is nothing to stop it from being demolished, Waddell said. 

Built by F.M. Hubbell, one of the city’s early business moguls, the depot once served as a gateway to the east side. At the time, the west side had a nice depot, and east side leaders wanted a permanent structure of their own, Waddell said.

For decades, the depot was put to more humble use as a tomato storage facility. Today, it's easy to overlook, hidden behind another shabby industrial building. 

“People recognize, I think when they see it, the importance of this building,” Wadell said.

Waddell helped form the Des Moines Heritage Trust last year to save the train depot, but said he eventually wants the group to advocate and raise money for preservation projects around the city.  

“Every time there is a historic building in the path of development, everyone wrings their hands about it, but often there is nothing they can do because there is no organization that comes to the table to help resolve it,” he said.

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