West Liberty offers “starting ground” for minority-owned businesses

Elena and Jesus Ocampo, shown at their West Liberty shop, El n’ J’s Coffee House. PHOTO EMERY STYRON


By Emery Styron

WEST LIBERTY—There’s hardly a vacant storefront – much less a parking spot – to be found in downtown West Liberty these days. Well-tended plants hang from peri­od lampposts fronting the business dis­trict’s mostly 19th and early 20th century buildings. American flags flutter on every block in this town just east of Iowa City, said to be the first minority-majority com­munity in the state.

A puppet festival filled the town during a recent visit in this month, but J.J. Gar­cia, vice president of West Liberty State Bank, says the bustle is not unusual. The downtown “has always thrived,” said Mr. Garcia, a native of the community whose grandfather was one of the first Mexicans recruited to work in what was then the Louis Rich turkey packing plant. The busi­ness names may have changed, but most downtown buildings have been continu­ously occupied for decades, he said.

West Liberty’s population was 3,737 in 2016, per the U.S. Census Bureau, with Lati­nos comprising 49.8 percent, whites 45.8 percent and Asians 2.57 percent. Hispanic businesses, including restaurants, a coffee shop, a beauty shop and a construction company, fill many spaces along East Third Street, the town’s main business district.

Some of those might otherwise be va­cant, Mr. Garcia said, if it wasn’t for the town’s welcoming nature. “Hispanics are what makes things work in this town.”

Upper floor apartment rentals in the downtown commercial buildings, often to some of the 900 mostly Latino employees of West Liberty Foods, provide downtown business owners additional cash flow that helps their businesses go, he noted.

One of those Hispanic entrepreneurs is Maria Soriano, proprietor of Maria’s Man­golandia, a restaurant serving Mexican and American food in a former bank building.

Ms. Soriano emigrated with her fami­ly from Mexico to Chicago at age 11, then came to Iowa a few years ago for a factory job. After injuring her arm, she decided the production line was too hard on her body and opened Mangolandia to give West Liberty “a taste of Chicago.”

The restaurant’s signature treat is the mangonada, a pureed, frozen mango mix­ture made from Mexican fruit she picks up fresh in Chicago every other weekend. An­other Mangolandia favorite are its hamburg­ers, made from beef ground fresh each day.

Ms. Soriano said she’s the first in her family to run a business, so membership in the West Liberty Chamber of Com­merce has been useful.

“If I have questions, they can help me. They are really good to rely on,” she said.

Fellow Latino entrepreneur Jesus Oc­ampo, who runs El n’ J’s Coffee House with his sister, Elena, said chamber sup­port and training from nearby Muscatine Community College have been crucial for getting his business a sound footing. Mr. Ocampo, whose parents are both from Mexico, was born and raised in Muscatine.

His smoothie shop in Muscatine was a losing venture, but his fortunes improved when he heard a coffee house had closed in West Liberty and moved west to fill the gap. Thanks to classes on coffee-making and money management, “we’re doing a whole lot better here,” Mr. Ocampo said.

“I think a lot of entrepreneurs see West Liberty as a starting ground,” he added, sharing his hope to expand operations with a second location in nearby Wilton.

Tina Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who runs Shang Hai Restaurant with her husband, Chen. PHOTO EMERY STYRON

Not of all West Liberty’s minority-owned businesses are Hispanic. Tina Zhang, a native of China who runs the downtown Shang Hai Restaurant with her husband, Chen, moved to West Liberty about a year ago from New Jersey. She was attracted by the schools and bought the 10-year-old business from a friend.

A green card holder who emigrated to the United States a decade ago, Ms. Zhang says business has been good so far, but “I care about kids first, not how big the business grows.” She enjoys the small-town atmosphere, the slow pace and the ability to walk everywhere.

Many downtown businesses have been sprucing up their exteriors, but that’s not a priority for Ms. Zhang.

“Maybe next year,” she says with a smile.

Task force sparks downtown renewal

Banker J.J. Garcia credits a downtown task force appointed by Mayor Bob Hartman two years ago with sparking many of the facelifts. The group’s application to the Iowa Economic Development Authority for a Community Development Block Grant to finance facade improvements was declined, but the effort turned the town’s attention to improving appearances.

Sandy Buysee, executive director of WE LEAD, West Liberty’s economic development agency, said the city will probably reapply for the grant, but good things are happening in the meantime. In 2016, WE LEAD purchased two Main Street buildings from Muscatine Community College and spent $350,000 to open a regional learning center for its affiliate, Eastern Iowa Community College.

Modernization of the building included interior and facade improvements, plus the renovation of three upstairs apartments. The buildings provide office space for WE LEAD and the chamber, as well as a place for college classes that serves triple duty as a co-working center and venue for meetings and conferences. Another building a few doors east of the WE LEAD office is being renovated for a boutique with upstairs apartments.

Big Imprint, a web designer, and Shaking Earth Digital are two tech firms that have recently located downtown.

“We offer low commercial rents and fast internet,” so there is potential for more of those kinds of businesses in West Liberty, Ms. Buysee said.

Noting that the town’s major employer, West Liberty Foods, is a zero-landfill company, she added, “I think we’re going to be this cool little green space just east of Iowa City.”

Mr. Hartman, who appointed the downtown task force, notes that West Liberty’s population has gained more than 1,000 people in the last 25 years. The growth of Hispanic-owned businesses reflects the community’s demographic makeup, he said.

Mr. Hartman believes it’s “just human nature” for people to congregate with others who look like them and share their culture. West Liberty has had generations of Latinos, so “we’ve already worked through those growing pains” that other communities with newer immigrant populations may be experiencing, he said.

Putting too much emphasis on ethnic differences doesn’t help matters, he added.

“We’re all humans, all individuals. That’s the bottom line.”