WATERLOO — This may be the year the rubber hits the road for the Cedar Valley TechWorks.
The agri-industrial product and business development center is ready to market and renovate some labs as “co-working” laboratory and office space in the “Tech 1” building on the campus for firms and individuals starting businesses and developing new products, TechWorks manager Cary Darrah said. There’s ample room for additional industrial development on other floors of the building.
Concurrent with that will be the development of a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel that will go in the “Tech II” building on campus, which Quad Cities area developer Rodney Blackwell projects will be open for occupancy in July. It will house international visitors to Deere’s Waterloo operations and draw attention to the businesses and products being developed in the Tech 1 building and the adjacent John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum.
The co-working laboratory space, dubbed “The Labs@TechWorks,” was previously occupied by the National Ag-Based Industrial Lubricants program of the University of Northern Iowa. NABIL closed in the fall of 2013 due to a substantial reduction in federal funding.
But the fixtures left behind — the office and lab space — are something Tech Works hopes to market to prospective industrial tenants.
“We’ve only been seriously marketing it for the last eight or nine months,” Darrah said, after TechWorks made substantial capital improvements to the first two floors.
“We really are excited about this whole campus once the hotel’s built,” Darrah said. “There will be a lot of activity over there that will cause people to pay more attention to what’s going on over here. But this Tech 1 building is for innovation technology and (business) startups,” augmented by resources at UNI’s Small Business Development Center and Regional Business Center.
“And we have resources for business who want to expand,” Darrah said. “There are not a lot of physical spaces and resources for business right in the middle,” between the startup and expansion phase. “And that’s what we hope to be able to provide. These are resources you won’t find in a lot of other places.”
There’s already been some nibbles.
“We have one lease pending that’s a bio product and another lease pending that is prototyping a new engineering technology,” Darrah said.
It will complement some of the product research going on in the adjacent product-development “maker space” set up by the Cedar Valley Makers, a membership driven shared space for entrepreneurs to develop new products.
“The vision for the maker space is, as people create things and want to take it to the next step or two steps further, these are the physical spaces that could accommodate that,” Darrah said of the lab space.
The labs have varying degrees of fixtures and furnishings, installed by TechWorks and NABIL and funded by a state economic development grant.
While NABIL ceased to exist, the infrastructure is attractive to potential industrial tenants. “This is just wired to the hilt,” Darrah said. “We had some folks come in here as NABIL was moving out and we were trying to understand what the best way to market these labs would be. They said these are better industrial labs than anything they’ve seen in the Midwest.”
Former NABIL director Lou Honary said, “With a serious reduction in federal funding, specifically earmarks, NABIL closed as of September 2013 or end of federal fiscal year. Funding was hard to come by and I was getting ready to retire and the resources on campus were limited. So, it was decided to close the center.
“I personally believe the center served us well as it helped to create several successful soybean oil based industrial lubricants and greases that are currently on the market,” Honary said.
TechWorks is finding a re-use for that space.
“The goal is these labs are helping people take their creation to another level,” — literally, to other floors of the building. “Our vision all along is we’re the physical space where those visions can take next steps,” Darrah said.
“We really are depending on, and very excited about, the attention this whole thing will get once the hotel’s built” in the Tech II building “and Deere has a training center, with restaurants.”
The Tech I building is for “innovation, education and technology,” for fledgling, startup businesses.
The Tech II building, dubbed “The Green@TechWorks,” is being developed by Blackwell.
“Rodney has stuck with this for three or four years. Trust me, developers of much more stamina have walked away from projects earlier than he has walked away from this one,” Darrah said. “It is a cool project, and it is Deere history and he had done several projects in and around Deere.”
“The Tech II building is a big part of the entire TechWorks campus,” Blackwell said, beginning with the development of the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum. “It’s always been a collaborative project to finish the entire campus.”
The project was first unveiled by John Deere Waterloo operations general manager Barry Schaffter and University of Northern Iowa President Robert Koob in 2004. In 2007, Deere made a gift of land, buildings and technical assistance for the TechWorks campus under Schaffter’s successor, Pat Pinkston.
“The hotel’s been a journey,” Blackwell said. “But there’s always so much work that goes into these sites prior to even getting into them,” including environmental considerations, before construction bids are let. But Blackwell said Steve Dust, executive director of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber, provided some continuity to keep the project going.
“It obviously benefited the project having Steve carry it through the entire process. It was arduous,” Blackwell said. “It was great to see the museum up and running, it’s great to see Tech I getting some serious traction; there’s already some cool things in it. And that next journey is getting this hotel open,” which will serve a lot of visitors to Waterloo Deere facilities.
“A lot of people who will come from around the world will stay right here on campus now, see the museum while they’re here.”
It’s a “boutique” hotel, being developed and tailored to a historic industrial building. It’s a painstaking process, being coordinated with the Mariott organization to meet its standards.
“We are historically trying to maintain the integrity of the campus to show off one of the largest companies in the world,” and the origins of its Waterloo tractor manufacturing operation.
It’s taking some major work. For example, floors had to be raised so hotel patrons can see out the historic industrial windows of Tech II. Since the building was originally built as a factory, the windows were set higher above the floor level so they would let in light without encouraging workers to be distracted by the the view. Blackwell now wants to take advantage of that view for the hotel. In addition, the old building has large interior support columns throughout its floors
“Getting where you could see out that window” and meet life safety and Mariott brand standards while preserving historic integrity “was quite the challenge,” Blackwell said. “It’s not as simple as pouring concrete.” However, he said, “That’s where, usually, we do our best. We hire a great architect, great property management company. Mariott, with all the knowledge they have — and it’s really important to Mariott — all those pieces together let us work to get to where everybody was happy with the product.
“You’ll have a very cool feel to it,” Blackwell said. While it’ll meet Marriott’s standards and have all the comforts of its Courtyard properties, “You’ll know you’re in a factory building. You’ll feel that.
“The good news is that we’re on schedule” for a mid-July opening, he said. “A lot of the things that made me nervous are behind us,” including a lot of trenching and interior work and cleaning up and meeting environmental standards in dealing with an old industrial site. “We’re pretty green,” Blackwell said.
Two out lots on the north side of the property would be developed for industrial space, and two others on the northeast end of the site would be retail space.
They’re also finishing designs for a restaurant and Irish pub and a 300-person banquet facility — along with a concurrent 15,000 square foot Deere training center.
“This will be a community hotel, where Deere happens to be the largest vendor in the market, and will pay homage to what it’s all about,” with the building’s history, he said.