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In need of a new home and a little help from the city MOXIE wants to expand in NL creating a unique destination

MOXIE founder and CEO Jason Hall wants to expand his operation on this parcel of land at 323 Cherry St., in North Liberty. This view, looking north from Zeller Street, shows the 5-1/2 acre parcels where Hall plans to build a retail, technology and entertainment destination while also increasing the space for his firm’s research and development, fabrication and installation forces. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– Jason Hall started MOXIE in his garage in 2008. Since then, the company has greatly expanded its solar energy products, with offices in 11 states and an average of 100 solar panel installations per month. MOXIE also offers electrician services, and since February, opened an electric car dealership; all from very cramped quarters on Sugar Creek Lane.
“We have been pretty successful in our ability to grow and help people,” Hall told the North Liberty City Council during its regular meeting, conducted online, on Tuesday, June 9. “We have outgrown that space,” he said adding MOXIE has a purchase agreement for 5-1/2 acres of land located at 323 Cherry St. Doing so, Hall said, would allow his company to double its space.
However, Hall is looking at more than just additional fabrication and storage space for the new site. He’s offering the city a “micro event center” at the heart of a “green district.”
“We feel there’s a bigger opportunity in play for the next five-to-10 years,” he said, laying out his vision for a destination, primarily for the Corridor, but also potentially bringing in visitors from Eastern Iowa and beyond.
Hall spoke of the Power and Light District in Kansas City, Mo., which is an office, shopping, dining and entertainment area composed of nine blocks on the south side of the downtown area; and named after the art deco-designed Kansas City Power and Light Building.
Hall sees what he called a city-center square populated by a new generation of retail consisting of green businesses offering electric vehicles, charging stations, smart thermostats, etc. Hall said other green and sustainable businesses would be an ideal fit and could include restaurants and a microbrewery inside a two-story U-shaped structure.
“People could get a nice meal and listen to music out in the (open air) canopied square. Ten months out of the year, we could use the outdoor venue.”
He added, “With the pandemic, fewer people want to be inside, so if we create a mostly open-air venue, it should, hypothetically, I would assume an open-air venue would reduce the concentration of the COVID virus as well as any others you could be susceptible to.”
In order to make the vision a reality, however, Hall told the council he needs a little help from them, and the taxpayers of North Liberty.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar included a comment about MOXIE’s plans in his memo to the council, stating Hall is seeking assistance in the form of a $50,000 forgivable loan to help facilitate acquisition of the Cherry Street property.
Council member Brent Smith was impressed with Hall’s presentation.
“This is the kind of thing that I personally, and a lot of my constituents, think (of) for North Liberty-based companies,” he said. “Give them incentives not to leave, bring in contractors and suppliers they’re doing business with, explain what a great city this is.” MOXIE, Smith said, “has been one of those places.”
Smith said these are the things the city needs to invest in, calling it an economic engine.
“We all know you’ve outgrown that space, to the point of being unsightly at times, but that’s all because of the growth of your business,” Smith said.
Smith pointed out the timing of MOXIE’s project plays into a larger and longer-term goal of an eventual Cherry Street infrastructure change. “North Liberty is still looking for something that is uniquely North Liberty. I get excited by ideas like this.”
Smith qualified the statement, “Any investment by the city has to be mutually beneficial.”
Councilwoman RaQuishia Harrington said Hall’s proposal was very intriguing.
She added, “I’m kind-of where Brent (Smith) is. How can we support businesses that have been here? I understand how you’ve grown. How we can get you there, I’m not 100 percent sure, but I’m interested.”
Council members Annie Pollock and Brian Wayson also weighed in with Pollock saying she agreed with the others.
She added, “I too, I think, wonder where is that center that we can attract people to?”
Pollock wanted more detailed information on the business side of the project and to know what would be most beneficial from Hall’s perspective. Wayson called it an interesting concept and said Cherry Street was a great location for it.
“I understand you’re looking for a little help with it,” Wayson said. “I think we can work with you.”
Heiar told the council it was a big project with two parts. The first, he said, was to get MOXIE relocated, and the $50k would allow MOXIE to move forward with that along with moving ahead on specific milestones in the agreement for the planning and development of the second part.
“If we can tick away at those (yet to be determined milestones), then the loan is forgiven. If nothing happens, we can go back and ask MOXIE Solar for that $50,000 back,” said Heiar.
The timing, Heiar said, is critical.
“We would have to move ahead with the loan trusting that Jason (Hall) will move ahead. I sense the group (council) is interested in moving ahead, in some fashion,” Heiar said.
Heiar added a formal motion was not needed and seeing nods of approval from the councilors, said work would begin on developing an agreement, which would be presented to the council to review and approve.
Councilman Smith stated he was in favor of sweetening the deal for MOXIE.
He quickly pointed out, “Our city has recently had a very large disappointment in the family entertainment center, and it dissolved and disappeared… and that was very disappointing.”
Smith was referring to a proposed 37,000 square foot entertainment center, which was to include a bowling center, arcade, laser tag arena, billiards room, and a sports bar. John Burchert initially approached the council in 2015 asking for an amendment to the city’s urban renewal plan to allow him to build on Madison Avenue at Penn Street. Burchert also asked for the property to be included in the city’s Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, which would defer property taxes for five years with a tax rebate of up to $750,000. Under the agreement with the city, Burchert was to have at least seven fulltime employees with an average salary of $35,000 and a total annual payroll expense of $600,000, or else the rebate would be reduced.
However, despite plans for a 2016 groundbreaking and a 2017 opening date the plans for the entertainment center fell through.
“Our city is ready for a success, and not another disappointment,” Smith said. “So, I’m very interested to see what that looks like.”
“We think this has legs,” Hall said.