Preserve rural serenity, or prepare for inevitable growth? Cumming faces difficult question as Hy-Vee comes knocking

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register

A major industrial development planned for tiny Cumming, about 15 miles southwest of Des Moines, has residents debating whether it's the right fit for a small city that plans to grow but wants to keep its rural feel.

This year, Hy-Vee hopes to start building a 635,000-square-foot distribution center and warehouse off of I-35 near the western entrance to the town. Under Hy-Vee's plan, it would be followed by another, 105-foot-tall automated warehouse that would add another 200,000 square feet of space. 

The company's plans include a total of up to 2 million square feet of warehouse space at the complex, if needed — more than three times the size of the recently built Amazon distribution center in Bondurant. Hy-Vee has said the complex would generate about 273 jobs paying at least $21 an hour.

More:Growing Cumming could use the tax revenue, but would a giant Hy-Vee distribution center ruin its rural feel?

Hy-Vee is proposing a sprawling warehouse and distribution complex  along the G14 Highway on the west side of Cumming. Some residents worry it will disrupt the rural feel and charm of the tiny but growing hamlet, population 439.

Via Zoom, Pete Hosch, Hy-Vee's assistant vice president for store planning, pushed Cumming's Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night for a decision on rezoning the site to industrial from commercial. The board responded with a 4-3 vote approving the change.

Hosch said he was sorry for being aggressive, but that city officials need to act quickly if the project is to move forward.

"If we can't make this happen, we will go elsewhere," he said. "We're at max capacity for our distribution centers, and we need to move forward."

The City Council, which has the final say, will hold a public hearing on the proposal at 7 p.m. Aug. 30. Council members typically don't vote on an ordinance until it has had three readings.

Hy-Vee project would bring big revenues to small town

The sprawling complex — envisioned with a pond and fountain, a Hy-Vee Fast & Fresh convenience store and a gas station, as well as a coffee shop — would more than double the city's current taxable property valuation and borrowing capacity. City leaders say that would allow the hamlet of 439 residents to better finance and pay for pressing infrastructure needs.

But the city doesn't have an up-to-date comprehensive plan, and some city officials and residents question whether the valuable piece of property near the interstate corridor should be an industrial site. They also are concerned that a warehouse campus would detract from Cumming's rural feel, making it look like just another Des Moines suburb.

Hy-Vee is proposing a sprawling warehouse and distribution complex on this site along the G14 Highway,  on the west side of Cumming. Some residents worry it will disrupt the rural feel and charm of the tiny but growing hamlet, population 439.

Several members of the Planning and Zoning Commission said in Tuesday's meeting that the city should act quickly to update its comprehensive plan to see if the distribution complex would be a good fit.

"I just feel we're a little behind, so I apologize to Hy-Vee," commissioner Jill Stanford said.

Some residents complained on social media that the commissioners were pressured to act too quickly under Hy-Vee's threat to take its project elsewhere.

"The abuse of power, in my opinion, is putting immense pressure on a bunch of ill-equipped community leaders to pass a resolution on the spot," resident Robbe Verhofste wrote on a Cumming community Facebook page.

City Council member Thomas Cackler, a local minister, pledged on Facebook to look into those concerns.

More:West Des Moines Hy-Vee HealthMarket closing, to be replaced with new wine and spirits concept this fall

The 801 Grand tower in downtown Des Moines stands in the distance as riders pedal between Cumming and Norwalk. Rural Cumming is a popular stop on the Great Southern bike trail.

Robert Fagen, Cumming's city administrator, has been a big cheerleader for the project, saying the city needs property tax revenue to help cover the infrastructure costs that have come with its inevitable growth. 

"The city of Cumming has been poised for this for a long time," he said. "They just had to wait for their turn."

But Ted Lare, owner of a 221-acre garden design center about 2 miles from the proposed distribution site, said not all growth is worth the trade-offs it requires.

"You have to look at what are you gaining," said Lare, adding that the Hy-Vee site at 5787 Highway G14, also known as Cumming Avenue, just west of Cumming's I-35 south exit, would create "a terrible entryway into the city. I know we are growing, but we don’t need to go industrial."

More:Use this interactive map to see what the 2020 census data says about your Iowa neighborhood

Growth questions likely to increase for Cumming

Decisions about what type of growth to allow, and where, are likely to become  increasingly important for Cumming, situated at an I-35 exit that gives residents quick access to the more urbanized portions of the Des Moines metro. Recently released U.S. Census data shows the census tract containing the town grew 21% from 2010 to 2020, while the one containing neighboring Norwalk grew 59%. On the other side, a southeast Dallas County tract grew 159%.

Hy-Vee hopes to break ground on the initial warehouse this fall, then build the 200,000-square-foot automated warehouse space farther north, where it would be partly obscured from the road by trees and landscaping.

Tina Potthoff, a Hy-Vee spokesperson, said the design and drawings given the city so far represent the long-term potential at the site, not a formal site plan.

A rendering shows part of a planned Hy-Vee distribution center and retail development in Cumming.

Potthoff said the company may seek some tax increment financing for the project’s first phase. Hy-Vee also has distribution centers in Chariton and Cherokee, a warehouse in Lomar for specialty products and a warehouse for a subsidiary, Perishable Distributors of Iowa, in Ankeny.

Estimates suggest the complex would have a greater taxable valuation — about $55 million — than all the residential property currently in Cumming. Because industrial development is taxed at a higher rate than residential, the project's first phase also is expected to generate much more revenue in property taxes than the city's residential properties — about $1.8 million a year.

The project lands on the small city's doorstep as Cumming is welcoming Iowa's first "agrihood," a potentially huge, $250 million mixed-use development for buyers seeking a fusion of rural and urban life. It could one day exceed 700 homes, Fagen said.

More:Goodbye, city life: Iowa's first 'agrihood' promises country living on edge of Des Moines

Developers are currently acquiring and annexing land for the sprawling development, called Middlebrook, about a half mile from the warehouse site. Eventually, it will adjoin the nearby Great Western Trail. Thousands of bikers each year visit Cumming while riding the trail, many congregating at the town's homey tavern, the Cumming Tap, and the Iowa Distilling Company across the street. 

In a previous planning and zoning public hearing, 12 people who live in the area spoke against the Hy-Vee project, and two in favor.

Residents expressed concerns that a distribution center will draw noise, traffic and pollution to the rural area.

At the planning and zoning meeting Tuesday night, Hoscsaid the warehouses would initially draw about 120 trucks a day and 15 to 18 an hour during peak travel time. The development calls for trucks to have their own lane leading to the warehouses.

Potthoff said Hy-Vee has proposed roadside signage at the site welcoming people to the city of Cumming and, in cooperation with the agrihood development, a parking lot for public use to support local growers, as well as other improvements to Cumming Avenue.

"Like we strive for in every community we are in, we want to make sure we are being good neighbors to those who live in the area," she said.

About Hy-Vee's proposed project

  • 635,000-square-foot distribution center and warehouse off of I-35 near the western entrance to the town, to be followed by a 200,000-square-foot automated warehouse
  • Future plans envision up to 2 million square feet of total space, though it's not clear how much will be built
  • Would generate 273 jobs paying at least $21 an hour

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.