The Iowa City Bike Library will be moving again. “This is going to be our third move in as many years,” Cody Gieselman, the Bike Library’s executive director, told Little Village. And once again, the move isn’t by choice.
“We recently found out that our lease for the space will not be made available for renewal,” Gieselman said. “This lease ends at the end of February. We did know that that was a likely situation, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t come to be.”
The Bike Library has been located at 700 S Dubuque St since September 2016. It had to leave its previous location on Capitol Street due to the high cost of its lease. The Bike Library was originally housed in a city-owned building on College Street, but had to move at the end of 2014, after the city sold the building to developers.
“That was the old John Wilson’s Sporting Goods building, which is now the future site of the Chauncey tower. We were there for 10 years,” Gieselman said. “We’re very grateful for that support from the city, because those 10 years really allowed us to establish ourselves, as an organization and get 501(c)3 [nonprofit organization] status.”
“Since then, it’s been something of a struggle, going from one space to another.”
The Bike Library repairs and refurbishes donated bikes which the public can check out of the library. People checking out a bike must leave a deposit — from $75 to $300, depending on the bike — and can keep the bike for six months. At the end of the six months, the bike can be returned and the deposit will be refunded, minus a $50 sustainability fee that covers wear and tear on the bike. Or the person can keep the bike, and the library keeps the deposit.
“Most people keep their bikes,” Gieselman said. The deposits and sustainability fees are the Bike Library’s primary source of funding.
The work at the Bike Library is almost entirely done by volunteers (Gieselman, who started as a volunteer, recently became the first paid employee), so the nonprofit’s major expense is rent.
“It is hard for small nonprofits, or even small businesses, to find space in the city,” Gieselman said. “Over the course of the last 13 years, or even over the 20 years I’ve lived in Iowa City, [the steady increase in rental prices] has really been something. It seems to have accelerated in the last few years, and it’s become more difficult for small, funky passion projects like the Bike Library to find space.”
According to figures provided the Iowa City Assessor’s Office, the assessed value of commercial real estate in Iowa City (including apartments) increased by approximately 60 percent over the past 15 years. Assessor Brad Comer pointed out in an email that part of that increase is attributable to an increase in the amount of commercial space available: “For example, about one-third of the new commercial value added to the 2017 assessments was for new construction with the remaining two-thirds due to an increase in the market.”
Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, agrees that it is a challenge for small nonprofits to find affordable spaces as the price of Iowa City real estate continues to increase.
“We’re actually working right now with a couple of nonprofits, to find space that may not be ideal for, say, first-floor retail, but might work for a nonprofit that doesn’t need that kind of space,” Bird said. “Some of our better landlords are attuned to the fact that the nonprofits and the cultural institutions are part of what drives a lot of businesses to want to be down here, and they recognize their value. So, we are seeing some opportunities for nonprofits to make use of underutilized spaces downtown.”
Space is a major concern for the Bike Library, because of its storage and workshop needs.
“Ideally, we’d have 3,500 square feet,” Gieselman said. “At the minimum we would need 2,500 square feet, and in that case, we’d have to scale back how we do things. But we’re definitely trying to keep flexible as we look for another space.”
“We’re looking for a little more permanence in location, because it’s a difficult thing to pack up and move the operation, especially with all the equipment we have. We have to put a lot of energy into a move, at a time when we want to grow the organization.”
The move will also distract from some of the Bike Library’s current programs, according to Gieselman. “Equity in cycling, for example. And education in cycling — how to repair your bike, how to ride safely — these are things we have the capacity to address when we’re not distracted by packing up, rebuilding and constructing a new shop.”