It’s a scene that unfolds at least thousands of times each year in Iowa City, on a set that is familiar enough - a musty dorm room with a giant window overlooking the river, a pile of textbooks and legal pads that has gone mostly ignored, and a map of the world hanging above the desk.
As we look back on life, college years hold a lot of special memories for most of us. It’s a unique period where the ability to dream is unencumbered by the difficulties and struggles of life, and where possibility is limited only by an individual’s imagination and the audacity to think big thoughts. For most students, graduation comes too early, but that first paycheck lessens the blow as we settle into a life of incremental achievement and the comfort that comes from being able to pay for a pint with something other than the change that is spit out from the bottle redemption machine at HyVee.
The map on the wall is a common fixture in this slice of Americana. Perhaps it’s what the map inspires that makes all the difference. Or perhaps it’s more about the hands that hold it. Whatever the source, there is no question that Tim Rypma suffered no shortage of imagination.
The Early Years
Tim graduated from Dowling High School in Des Moines in 1999. He was an outdoorsman in the classic sense of the word, who pursued streams and fields and mountains as an opportunity to get to know himself, rather than as some sort of conquest. Even at a young age, he had the unique character of being both modest and bold, and humble yet ambitious. He was the kind of person that you would implicitly trust, even though his words very often focused on ideas and plans that seemed too immense for someone of such a young age.
After graduating high school he headed west, enrolling at a small Catholic school in Helena, Montana called Clara College. This is where he honed his skills as an outdoorsman, perfected his fly casting, and learned the proper way to sharpen an ice axe for climbing frozen waterfalls. Although he loved Montana, the school proved to be a little too far from home and he transferred back to the University of Iowa in 2000.
It was there that he found himself laying in bed one Sunday afternoon, staring at the map and dreaming of his future.
“I saw a dot on the map labeled ‘Mount Everest,’” Tim said. “I had never heard of Nepal before and didn’t know anything about it. But I was interested in climbing and I thought to myself, ‘if that’s where the biggest mountains are, then that’s where I need to go.’ I decided that the best way to learn about the things that interested me was by experiencing them.”
Of course, that’s the attitude that explains everything that happened after - the projects and the buildings and the conquests, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Three days after his 21st birthday, Tim boarded a flight for a year-long program in Kathmandu. Upon arriving, he quickly became sick and bedridden, but after shifting to a diet that consisted primarily of a local dish called “dal baht,” he recovered his strength and began pursuing his goals. Within days, he could navigate the city’s maze of unmarked streets. Within weeks, he had become friends with the snake charmers and rickshaw drivers. Within months, he was speaking Nepali. He eventually found the mountains that he sought to explore and then returned home on schedule and inspired.
Back in Iowa City
Back in Iowa City, he began applying what he learned in Nepal to his future.
“In Nepal, I learned that to be successful, I would have to immerse myself in the things that I wanted to achieve,” Tim said. “I wasn’t going to learn through books. I was going to learn through experiences.”
Tim began the next phase of his life by enrolling in the entrepreneurship program at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. After joining the program, his first project was to write a business plan for a fictitious real estate development.
“During the project, I realized that I needed to get more involved on the finance side,” Tim recalled. “I had learned that big projects often require private equity from developers and public financing from cities, so I got a summer internship at Knapp Properties in Des Moines and a fall internship with the City of Iowa City. At the time, Iowa City didn’t have an internship program, so I had to keep calling them until I could persuade them to let me work there for free.”
During his internships, Tim had become inspired by the gentrification that had occurred in cities like Denver, Seattle, and Portland, and began wondering if a similar transformation might be possible in Des Moines.
Reviving Des Moines
“I started looking at maps of the oldest parts of Des Moines and tried to find properties that were similar to projects that I had seen in other markets,” Tim said. “Then I started reviewing the public real estate records to find buildings that might become available for sale.”
As he researched, he became interested in several buildings between the river and the Capitol Building on the east side of the river in downtown Des Moines.
“The area was in pretty bad shape at the time and the city had scheduled a number of the buildings for demolition,” Tim recalled. “A group of activists and residents had come together to save the buildings. The group was successful and the buildings were spared, but there still wasn’t a clear idea what to do with them.”
Tim became particularly interested in a building in the 500-block of East Grand, known as the “Studio Block.” After doing some research, he learned that the block was owned by the cantankerous octogenarian, Jim Boyt. Tim set up a meeting to see Jim and told him that he wanted to buy the building.
“Jim’s response was always, ‘It’s not for sale!’” Tim laughed.
Never one to be deterred by a firm “No,” Tim spent the next four years building a relationship with Boyt over countless lunches, and weekly text messages and calls. He met with lawyers, bankers, and investors, while refining his business plan and providing updates to Boyt every step of the way.
“For years, I would call Jim with updates from my meetings and he would always respond with, ‘It’s not for sale!’ But I just kept calling anyhow.”
Six months after Tim graduated from the University of Iowa, Boyt accepted a purchase agreement for the Studio Block with $5,000 in earnest money that Tim had scratched together and a condition that Boyt could remain in his office for the rest of his life rent-free.
“I had a deal,” Tim said. “But I still had no idea how I was going to pay for it.”
Making it a Reality
Tim scrambled to find investors and tenants, and the project quickly came to life. Early tenants included the Olympic Flame, Grand Piano Bistro, Lawson Books, Miyabi 9, and Dornik; collectively providing the stability the project required and the tinder to the redevelopment fire that began to burn in what would become known as the East Village. Despite the success of the project, Tim still needed to find a way to pay his personal expenses, so he took an entry level job with Knapp Properties as a property manager at the new West Glen development.
“When we started working with Tim on the landscaping at West Glen, I couldn’t believe his energy,” recalled Matt Boelman, co-owner of Perficut Companies. “He was managing an incredibly complex multi-use project in West Des Moines for Knapp during the day, and then trying to transform the East Village with his own partnership at night. He was working around the clock on two projects that were changing everything about development in the region in two very different ways. It was exciting and we knew that we wanted to be part of it.”
“It was a great partnership,” Tim recalled. “For years I had been focused on the financial aspects of development from the inside. Matt expanded my thinking about how the grounds and landscaping can shape your first impression of a project. His team was incredible at increasing curb appeal no matter the time of year, and regardless of whether the project was in an urban location like the East Village or part of a bigger project like West Glen.”
From there, the last decade has been a rush. With nearly a dozen projects, more than 70,000 square-feet of retail space, and more than 130 residential units, Tim continues to aim his sites higher.
“As I look back, I’ve been extremely lucky to have the backing of great investors and partners who wanted to show me the path, while teaching me what they know and at times, encouraging me to lead.” Tim said. “As I look forward to the next decade, I couldn’t be more excited about what I imagine Des Moines will become.”
With current projects opening at 219 East Grand and 350 East Locust, the present looks pretty exciting too.