Improvement grants awarded to live-work retail building

Aug. 27—The former Lemon Tree Tea House building has new owners who also want to use it as a live-work retail structure called Betty J's Mercantile.

Originally from Ottumwa, the shop was previously known as Big River Fabric and Gift Co. and has since moved to 309 First Ave. W. in Newton. Betty J's Mercantile was approved at the Aug. 21 city council meeting for a Downtown Improvement Grant and a Downtown Housing Grant to upgrade the business and residence.

Altogether, owners Carl Hentsch and Matt Roberts are receiving more than $26,000 in grant funds. Betty J's Mercantile will be a cultural gift and fabric shop.

According to city documents, the owners proposed to add a double-sided, non-illuminated custom aluminum projecting sign to the building, as well as siding repairs and a rear deck. The city will provide a one-to-one match of $6,150.17 in bonded funds to assist the improvements to the business's sign and facade.

For the residential portion of the property, the city awarded the maximum of $20,000 toward the remodel. The total costs of the remodel — which include the installation of a kitchen and laundry space — add up to $94,688.92, which is well past the one-to-one match needed for the grant.

The building was constructed between 1900 and 1906 and is considered a contributor to the city's historic downtown district.

Two local doctors had owned in the building at one time, Dr. C.C. Smead in the 1910s and Dr. Leslie L. Smead in the late 1930s through 1950s. Briefly in 1930s it was also operational under the business name Bert Simmons Garage. In 1988, Ben Clayton and Jim Cleverly owned and remodeled the house into a law office.

The Lemon Tree Tea House & Restaurant had been operating from the building since 2016, providing unique lunches and treats from its kitchen.

Owners of Betty J's Mercantile estimate their business to be ready by Nov. 1.