Where In the World Is: Lenox, Iowa
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS ZACK MANNHEIMER? BY ZACK MANNHEIMER.
I finished my work in the 676 person town of Stanton kicking off their capital campaign to finance an expanded daycare center, new trails connecting to Viking Lake, and a downtown street facade program we had worked on the previous year. I was headed to meet the Ramsey’s in Lenox, a slightly bigger town with a population of 1,407. I needed to find some lunch and did a quick search for good spots beyond the ones I already knew in Southwest Iowa. No internet signal. That’s a problem for another day, so as I passed Corning, Johnny Carson’s birthplace and home to 1,486, I figured I’d see if I could talk the folks at Kay’s Café into serving breakfast.
I pulled into Lenox a bit later, knowing very little about the town. It was suggested that I meet the Ramsey’s who recently moved to town and opened up a supermarket, Ramsey’s Market. Main Street Lenox is rough, consisting of few available storefronts and full buildings, and little activity. I drove around the outskirts and found a well-built subdivision and camping area surrounding several small lakes. Peaceful and serene.
As I made my way downtown and to Ramsey’s, I was shocked to find a well-stocked supermarket with a creative, rustic interior. There I met the owners, Bonnie and Theo Ramsey. I was surprised to see they were young, and about the same age as I am. They brought me up to speed on some facts: Bonnie is from Southwest Iowa and Theo is from Seattle, they met in the Air Force singing and are both performers, they moved to Lenox three years ago and bought the market, they do well at liquidation sales, the market’s shelving is from a Whole Foods, and the supermarket turns a modest profit.
This alone was amazing: a young, ambitious couple and their two kids taking on a food-desert in Iowa. Theo pulled out a picture on his phone and said, “Here’s our real vision…” he showed me a picture of a grain silo in front of the market that connects the building to the one next door. The unassuming brick building originally functioned as a school gymnasium, then was sold to the local American Legion who put up drop ceilings and underutilized the space for decades. “This is where the coffee shop will go,” Bonnie told me as we walked into the building. I saw a small room that could be a quaint coffee bar, but there is something bigger beyond. The former gym had a stage and a large performance space that could hold hundreds, and it was filled with empty racks from former department store chain, Younkers.
The Ramsey’s couldn’t contain their excitement, they launched into all of their ideas for the space: a pizza/burrito restaurant, a coffeehouse, consignment shop, a high-end cocktail lounge. “But the stage…” I mentioned in hopes they see its potential. Alas, they certainly had plans for that, “We want to do shows, as many as possible, but we’re not sure how to make it work financially,” they said. “We carried out the upgrades of this building ourselves, and it cost about $15,000 instead of $500,000. All of this wood paneling…” Theo gestured toward the horrible 1970’s wood paneling on one corner of the room, “we pulled it off, turned it over, and painted it white.” Brilliant.
“What’s up with the Younkers racks?” I asked. It turns out they initially had plans to build a general store. “There’s nowhere in town to buy socks,” Bonnie declared, “but then we learned that Dollar General is coming to town…” Theo added. Theo is on City Council and has been given word about Dollar General’s eventual arrival. They want to save on taxes by buying unincorporated land outside of Lenox, and, nonetheless, are asking for incentives from the City to do so. “If they open, we’re going to lose 30-40% of our business at the market,” the Ramsey’s disclosed. I brought up an article from The Guardian that was passed on to me by Sue Cosner from Iowa Area Development Group. The article explained how the discount chain is killing rural communities. And to my surprise, Theo interjected, “We’re the ones who shared that article with Sue!” They are living this right now.
We brainstormed over the next hour or so about to do with the space. Ramsey’s Market is already a game-changer and a great example of rural placemaking. When the other venue opens, and their dreams are fully realized, I believe their work will be catalytic in bringing major economic and cultural development to Lenox, a charming and sleepy community in our state.