Scott Cutler of Cutler Development bought the building at 312 Fifth St. in West Des Moines and plans to renovate it to include five apartments and first-floor retail space that likely will be a cat cafe. Photo by Polk County Assessor.

Mary Jankowski of West Des Moines has been researching cat cafes for more than three years. 

She’s visited several in the United States. She’s talked with cafe owners, Animal Rescue League of Iowa officials and those with Iowa Inspections and Appeals. 

Now Jankowski is ready for the next step: opening a cat cafe in West Des Moines’ Valley Junction.rere

"I was looking for something that fills a gap in the community and can employ people with special needs," said Jankowski, whose adult daughter is on the autism spectrum.

Jankowski approached Scott Cutler of Cutler Development about the possibility of locating the cafe in his redevelopment project at 312 Fifth St. in Valley Junction. 

"I’ve noticed other cities with cat cafes and know that they are gaining popularity in other similar-sized markets," said Cutler, who bought the 106-year-old building in June for $330,000, Polk County assessor records show. Cutler said he was approached by Jankowski and one other person, both interested in opening a cat cafe in the first-floor retail space of his project.

Cat cafes began in Taiwan in 1998, according to Smithsonian.com. They became popular with tourists, some of whom took the idea to Japan where more than 150 are now located. 

Since then, the cat cafes spread worldwide, coming to North America in 2014 when one opened in Montreal, Canada. Oakland, Calif., is home to the first cat cafe in the United States, where 82 are now located, according to thecatlife.com, a website that tracks cat cafes.

Iowa law will require the cats to be located in an area that is separated from where food and drinks are served, Jankowski said. She said patrons will be able to watch the cats through a glass wall and windows.

Patrons who want to mingle with the cats can do so for a fee, which Jankowski hasn’t yet set. A spot check of other cafes showed fees vary. Felius Cat Cafe in Omaha charges $7.50 for 30 minutes of "cat play" and $14 for one hour; Whiskers Cat Cafe in Kansas City charges $10 an hour.

Jankowski said cafe owners with whom she’s talked have waiting lists of people who want to visit the cat play area. The cats, which have to be up to date in vaccinations, will come from the rescue league and will be available for adoption, she said.

The cafe will sell coffee drinks, tea and smoothies as well as some food items, Jankowski said.

Cutler hopes to begin renovating the property this month. The house, built in 1913 by a family in banking, has been home to a variety of retailers including a bridal shop.

Cutler plans to have five apartments in the building. The renovation project includes restoring hardwood floors; installing new mechanical, plumbing and appliances; and updating kitchens. He said three of the apartments will be two stories with the floors connected by a spiral staircase.

One unit will be affordably priced; the other four will be market rate, he said.

"I think this mix is a good thing for the neighborhood," he said. 

He hopes construction will be done by spring.

Cutler is a familiar with Valley Junction. In 2017 he bought the 109-year-old Silvers building at 224 Fifth St. and renovated six second-level apartments. The first floor includes a restaurant and cocktail bar. 

The building’s renovations added value to the area. Before Cutler bought the Silvers building, the structure was assessed at $364,000; this year, it was valued at $727,000, records show.