How Altoona has grown from sleepy suburb to retail destination
Watch about a year of construction on the Outlets of Des Moines in 40 seconds. Special to the Register
For Prairie City's Stephanie Burkett, shopping for clothes used to mean a 30-mile trek to West Des Moines or an even longer ride to the Tanger Outlets in Williamsburg.
The opening of the Outlets of Des Moines in 2017 cut her travel time in half.
“I was excited,” she said. “I didn’t have to drive to Williamsburg or Jordan Creek (Mall) anymore.”
Standing in the open-air mall on a cold February afternoon, Burkett said she and her family make the 20-minute trip to Altoona to shop once or twice a month. They’re drawn by stores like American Eagle, Loft, Old Navy, Nike and Under Armour.
The 300,000-square-foot Outlets of Des Moines, which opened nearly 1½ years ago with more than two dozen stores and a couple of quick-serve restaurants, is pulling droves of new visitors to Altoona.
The mall opened nine new stores last year and expects to announce more this year after reporting strong sales numbers in its first 12 months.
Meanwhile, work continues in the surrounding Shoppes at Prairie Crossing development. Hy-Vee opened a new "Fast & Fresh" grocery and convenience store hybrid this month. Hyatt Place Hotel and Burger Shed restaurant will open this year.
The recent growth marks the latest chapter in Altoona’s evolution from a sleepy bedroom community into a retail destination.
In the past 20 years, the Des Moines suburb has gone from a few retail stores to being a regional draw for shoppers in Polk County and the surrounding area.
Taxable sales in the city have grown from $90 million to $636 million in that time.
“We’re the first community that you come to when you come to the metro area for basically two-thirds of the state’s population,” Altoona City Administrator Jeff Mark said. “We understand those demographics and the draw that Altoona can be.”
'We've received more buzz'
Altoona was home to fewer than 3,000 people when Adventureland Park opened in 1974. By the time Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino arrived in 1989, the city had grown to 7,200 residents.
The U.S. Highway 65 bypass, a $100 million project that brought the four-lane highway to span the east and south sides of the Des Moines metro, routed more traffic to Altoona in the 1990s.
Mark, who became Altoona's city administrator 22 years ago, said when the new beltway arrived, business followed.
“That was kind of the impetus,” he said. “It really got the attention of retailers.”
Altoona landed Walmart in 1998. In the following years, Menards, Lowe's, Target and Staples joined the city's Eighth Street corridor.
"What I like to tell people is it's been this slow, sustainable growth," said Melissa Horton, executive vice president of the local chamber of commerce. "Now, in the last year-and-a-half, we've had this little bit of explosion."
As Altoona grew, Quad Cities developer Mike Whalen's Heart of America Group was buying up land to the north of Interstate Highway 80 and making plans for The Shoppes at Prairie Crossing, his 230-acre retail, residential and commercial development.
Bass Pro Shops opened there in 2009, before the economic recession halted development for five years.
Johnny's Italian Steakhouse opened in 2014, followed by a 107-room Fairfield Inn.
The Outlets of Des Moines opened in fall 2017, bringing stores like Bath & Body Works, Tommy Hilfiger and Yankee Candle to the east side of the metro. The project included the first Iowa stores for companies like ASICS, Converse and Rack Room Shoes.
Since 2000, Altoona's population has nearly doubled to 18,699 people in 2017, according to U.S. census data. Altoona's two biggest years for commercial development came in 2017 and 2018, bolstered significantly by ongoing work at Facebook's $1 billion data center.
"I definitely think we’ve received more buzz," said Alex Lynch, executive director of the East Polk Innovation Collaborative. "Everyone’s known where Altoona is with Adventureland and Prairie Meadows, but the Outlets and Johnny's and the hotel add another dynamic to it."
Meg Schneider, senior vice president of business resources and community development with the Des Moines Partnership, said Altoona's growing retail offerings are filling pent-up demand for those businesses on the metro's east side.
"It's not just eastern Polk (County), it's really a destination center for probably a 60-mile radius," she said. "It's in such a great location on the interstate."
Sales on the rise in Altoona
State data illustrate the increasing retail draw Altoona has become.
During the Outlets of Des Moines’ first year, from October 2017 to the end of September 2018, taxable sales increased $56 million from the same time one year earlier.
That was the city’s largest year-over-year increase since 2005, after Target and Lowe’s opened new stores.
Over the past 20 years, Iowa Department of Revenue data show taxable sales in Altoona have grown 700 percent. Taxable sales figures include the total value of goods and services that are subject to state sales tax, as well as hotel/motel room rentals, and construction equipment subject to the state excise tax.
"You’re going to continue to see that number grow," said TJ Just, general manager of the Outlets of Des Moines, who said traffic at the mall will increase as more people adjust their shopping habits.
A study commissioned last year by Heart of America Group showed the area is drawing people from the metro and beyond.
Using cellphone data, the study determined 45 percent of visitors are coming from Altoona, Des Moines and nearby suburbs like Ankeny, Pleasant Hill and Bondurant.
Four percent come from retail-laden West Des Moines. And about 17 percent come from outside central Iowa.
A traffic camera analysis showed a collective 28,052 vehicles traveled along the development's Bass Pro Drive and Tallgrass Parkway during the 24 hours surrounding Black Friday.
Whalen said he is pleased that reality is lining up with his expectations for The Shoppes at Prairie Crossing as the area takes shape.
“It verified a lot of what we believed,” he said. “We were touting it as a regional draw, and we were hoping the data bore that out.”
What's coming next?
Altoona's population is approaching 20,000 people.
Mayor Dean O'Connor said that's a critical benchmark for spurring additional business growth. He said he wants to see more commercial development in the city's neighborhoods.
"We have Lowe's and Target and Menards and the Outlets, but we also need those small and medium-sized businesses, to be successful," he said. "Even if you're talking office buildings."
As more stores fill the Outlets of Des Moines, officials expect higher taxable sales numbers in 2019.
The outlet mall expects to open more retail apparel stores this year, Just said.
Even amid a stormy retail industry, he said discount centers around the nation continue to grow.
“I think you’re seeing that in a microscopic way here in the Des Moines market,” he said. “While other centers maybe are struggling and retailers are closing stores, we’re opening (stores).”
Whalen said additional plans for Prairie Crossing should become clearer in 2019.
The first phase of a strip center near the new Hy-Vee will be ready for occupancy in June. Whalen said he's already working on a lease for the space.
Some larger retailers have expressed interest in land south of the outlet mall for a "power center" that could open next spring.
“Right now is a volatile time in the retail business, but I think we’re going to be successful in landing a bunch of additional retailers to the area,” Whalen said.