A conceptual rendering of the proposed Johnston Town Center planned at Northwest 62nd Avenue and Merle Hay Road. Special to the Business Record.

About 20 years ago, investment by owners in properties located along Merle Hay Road north of Northwest 62nd Avenue had come to a standstill.

Property owners, who had witnessed Walgreens and Community State Bank paying premium prices for properties at the intersection of Merle Hay and Northwest 62nd, thought their properties were also worth top dollar, said Dave Wilwerding, Johnston’s community development director.

"Investment pretty much stopped," he said. "No one was doing anything to their properties. They all had for-sale signs up and they all thought their properties were worth what the Walgreens and the bank paid."

In an effort to jump-start redevelopment in the area, city officials in 2007 completed a redevelopment plan for the portion of Merle Hay Road that’s north of Northwest 62nd Avenue.

The plan sparked development, including the construction of the 62-unit Cornerstone Commons at 6365 Merle Hay Road and the 90-unit Cadence apartments at 6300 Merle Hay Road.

Now city officials have their eye on the northeast corner of Merle Hay and Northwest 62nd where City Hall is located. On Tuesday, a groundbreaking will be held for the proposed Johnston Town Center, a $100 million development that city officials hope will become a gathering place for residents.
The project, which will be developed by Hansen Real Estate, will include a new City Hall and about 45,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space spread over five buildings. In addition, a three-story, 48,000-square-foot office building and an 80-room hotel are proposed.

The 18-acre development is proposed to also include about 1 acre of green space called the Yard that would be in the middle of the project. Also, an ice-skating rink, similar in size to Des Moines’ riverfront rink, would be constructed. In the summer, the rink would be a splash pad.

On the east side of the site, a trailhead for the Trestle Trail is proposed. On the south side, a community orchard is planned.

"We’ve always lacked that downtown, commercial-based destination area," Wilwerding said. "We’re trying to do something different. We’re trying to create a core where we can get a good group of retail, restaurants built around a community space, and provide a level of activity and businesses that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to provide."

Johnston, which was incorporated in 1969, has seen its population more than double since 2000 to nearly 22,000 from 8,900, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

The suburb, located northwest of Des Moines, is home to Camp Dodge, a military training site. It also is home to what had been known as Pioneer Hi-Bred International, now called Corteva. Henry B. Wallace, agriculture secretary and vice president under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, began Pioneer, which has about 2,000 workers in Johnston.

In August, the community opened the first access point of a regional water trails project aimed at encouraging the use of Central Iowa’s waterways.

City officials have long wanted to rejuvenate the eastern portion of Merle Hay Road north of Northwest 62nd Avenue. In 2014, the city bought an abandoned church building at 6337 Merle Hay Road. Since then, it has bought 10 other properties in the 18-acre area, spending more than $3.5 million. The purchase of at least one other property is planned.

Wilwerding said the city will recoup money spent on the land when it sells lots to Hansen Real Estate for development.

The first project is the construction of a new City Hall, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.

Hansen Real Estate, which Johnston officials selected to partner with after a competitive review and interview process, is working to get tenants for the first two retail buildings that would be located near the intersection of Northwest 62nd and Merle Hay.

The goal is to have construction completed of those retail buildings at the same time work on the new City Hall is completed, Wilwerding said.

"The project is not something that will be completed overnight," he said. But "we’re hoping it'll get some activity going pretty quickly."

To view more architectural renderings, click here.

The groundbreaking for the Johnston Town Center is planned for 1 p.m. Tuesday at 6221 Merle Hay Road. The community is invited to attend.