MUSCATINE — Ramiro Vazquez has plans for the partially crumbling brick building on the corner of Mulberry Avenue and 5th Street. Big plans.
"My goal is to bring the building up to code and make that area nice again," he said. "And it's possible."
In a 5-0 vote Thursday, Muscatine City Council approved the sale of 500 Mulberry Ave. to Vazquez. Councilmen Allen Harvey and Kelcey Brackett were absent. When construction on the two-story building is complete, Vazquez hopes it will house two business on the lower level and two apartments upstairs.
Approving the sale was unanimous for the council, but not without discussion. Councilman Osmond Malcolm wanted to know if Vazquez was financially capable of completing the project without the forgivable loan. He was concerned about the use of taxpayer money if a problem arises and the project can't be completed.
City Administrator Gregg Mandsager said the project is included in the city's Urban Renewal Plan and qualifies for tax incentive financing (TIF). He said the proposal request included an incentive of a five-year forgivable loan to attract interested parties. Bidders were not required to prove, nor could the city ask if they could foot the bill for the project without the loan, he said, and Vazquez met all city requirements for the bid.
The agreement with the city gives Vazquez a $135,000 loan and six months to secure the building before proceeding on other work for the project.
Councilman Phil Fitzgerald vouched for Vazquez, assuring Malcolm the project would be completed "in a timely manner and it will be done correctly." He said Vazquez is a local contractor who has already renovated buildings downtown to make them viable.
Vazquez co-owns North Construction and Guadalajara restaurant with his wife, Lupe Vazquez.
The building, a former bar, has been in disrepair for more than 10 years. A leak from the roof brought in water which rotted the wooden window and door headers, causing the wall on the west side to fail. A pile of bricks collected on the ground, and locals have posted comments on social media about how big it had gotten over time.
A car hit the wall facing 5th Street, which left a noticeable dent. Still, the structure was found to be in good condition after a mason and engineer did a walk-through.
If all bidders had backed out of the project, the only option for the city would be demolition. Mandsager said the cost to tear down the building, remove asbestos and other associated costs would total more than $300,000. Rehabbing the building puts it back on the tax rolls and saves the city money.
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Vazquez agreed with the decision to rehab, choosing instead to restore a part of Muscatine rather than tear it down.
"Somebody thought about it and they put all their effort into it," he said, "and it's hard to let them down. It's our history."
He said he's been researching the background of the 119-year-old building to get ideas for the cosmetic restoration. It stands out with its emerald green storefront that came from when it was Escorpion bar. When asked if the green would stay, Vazquez quickly said "no."
"That has to go," he said. "Those colors have to go."
Vazquez immigrated to Muscatine from Mexico in 1985 and has been in the area since. He said he met his wife, "that beautiful woman," in Moline. The couple will be married 30 years in August.
"She captured my heart and wouldn't let go," he said.
The pair passed down their entrepreneurship to their family. Their daughter Maritza Vazquez owns and operates The Coffee Belt adjacent to Guadalajara where their son Alejandro Vazquez owns half of the business.
"Muscatine has been good to me," he said. "So I need to be giving back."
Vazquez said applying for the loan was a new experience for him because he is "used to paying for things on my own." Work to get the building into shape for commercial and residential use will be significant, and once construction starts, he said he is confident the project will be completed. In fact, he said he has a crew ready to start as early as next week.
"Nothing is easy in this life," he said, "but I know we can finish it. We will have a nice building at the end, and I'm looking forward to that."