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One family, three businesses


American Laser Creations, Clark’s Soda Shoppe and Paper Cuts & Other Stuff, a three-part business operated by the Clark family, celebrated its grand opening last weekend in downtown Belle Plaine. Shown receiving a plant from Belle Plaine Community Development Executive Director Jeanne Duffy are Clark family members Timalee (seated), Bethany and Roberta Millsap, Timalee’s sister. Also on hand for the grand opening was Joyce Eyler, second from right, who worked at the building’s original soda fountain when she was in high school and for several years after.

“We finally made it,” is the way Timalee Clark sums up her family’s efforts to launch their new three-part business in downtown Belle Plaine.

After a slow start with a couple unforeseen losses along the way, American Laser Creations, Clark’s Soda Shoppe and Paper Cuts & Other Stuff held its grand opening April 30 and May 1 at 817 12th Street. In it visitors will find an old-fashioned soda shop, scrapbooking store and a laser business owned and operated by Timalee’s husband, Matthew.

The losses were big ones for the Clark family ¬– Matthew lost his job as a maintenance fabricator when Benco closed and Timalee lost a leg to diabetes this winter. But their dream to open a family business continued despite changing circumstances.

The Clark’s new store grew out of Matthew’s need for more room for his American Laser Creations business, which he was operating from the basement of the family’s Belle Plaine home.

He designs and sells paper cuts, custom cuts, woodcuts and does laser engraving. Licensed for Iowa’s three state universities, Drake and Western Illinois, Matthew is able to put a school logo on just about any product.

The Clarks interest in opening a scrapbooking store evolved from the laser business. “I started selling paper cuts to a couple different scrapbook stores, and when it started to pick up, I realized that was the way to go,” Matthew explained. “I went to Iowa City and got a couple stores there. Now I’m sitting at about 10 stores that carry these cuts, and some custom cuts, too.”

In his travels, Matthew noticed most scrapbooking stores were all the same. With his laser and paper cutting expertise, he wanted to offer customers something unique, and all under one roof in downtown Belle Plaine.

Some wondered why he wanted to start a business in a small town, especially during these tough economic times.

 “We’ve lived here 23 years and we like it. We moved from Cedar Rapids, and Belle Plaine is just a nice, quiet little town and an enjoyable place to be. And if you look at the location, there are no scrapbook stores anywhere around here,” Matthew said.

The Clarks bought their building from Paul Sankot in early 2009. Remodeling soon began, and by the time all was done, they had new interior walls and ceiling, a new roof, restroom, floors and a deck on the back side. They poured a concrete floor in the basement and remodeled an apartment on the second floor.

The building’s previous occupants included Cody’s Pharmacy and, decades ago, Klink’s, which featured a soda fountain where thirsty visitors could get the latest refreshing concoction.

“Way back when they used to have a soda fountain in here,” Timalee recalled. “When we thought about it, it was like, “Why not? Go ahead and throw a soda fountain in.’”

Attempts to locate the building’s original fountain were unsuccessful, so the Clarks searched the Internet and found an authentic Liquid Carbonics fountain on eBay. They made a trip to Paris, TX to haul back the 100-year-old, 4,000-pound monster, complete with soda fountain, all equipment and counter. The only fountain parts that are not original are the five stools. The fryer and malt machine are transplants from other vintage soda fountains.

 “We’re going all the way back to the 40s and 50s,” says fountain manager Roberta Millsap, Timalee’s sister who came to Belle Plaine from Cedar Rapids to help after Timalee’s leg was amputated but soon found her sister needed no help.

 “My objective is to serve the best quality we can with the best service. We want repeat customers. If you treat and serve them right, they’re going to come back,” Roberta said.

The fountain features original milkshakes made from milk not ice cream, regular shakes, sundaes, floats and other ice cream delights, plus breakfast pastries, grilled or cold sandwiches, salads, homemade pies, coffee and other beverages.

Seating 17 – a dozen at three round tables and five at the counter – Clark’s Soda Shoppe is not to be confused with a restaurant.

 “It’s a place to come in and get sandwiches, drinks and ice cream, but we can’t fill it up and have people waiting (to be seated), then I’d feel bad,” said Matthew, who intends to keep  prices competitive so “somebody can come in and have a milk shake when they want one, not when they can afford one.”

An authentic atmosphere will be part of the fun. “The female employees will wear poodle skirts and saddle shoes, and we’ll try some of the old lingoes, like ‘One on the City’ (a glass of water) and ‘Pine float’ (toothpick in a glass of water). I’m going to try real hard to do what they did back then, like pouring the glass from up here” Roberta said, illustrating a high transfer of drink from container to glass.

Timalee said they are looking for old photographs of downtown Belle Plaine to display above the fountain, especially pictures of the building and its original fountain.

The Clark’s pushed to open by May 1, National Scrapbook Day. Timalee said she scrapbooks a little, but the family expert is daughter Bethany, 13, who is home schooled.

The store stocks extensive scrapbook supplies and takes custom orders for paper cuts that Matthew will do onsite. They have plenty of room for supplies they will order at customer request. Timalee said she hopes to invite in experts to lead scrapbooking classes.

Matthew believes his family’s store will bring business to Belle Plaine because it offers unique services to this area. He looks forward to the downtown revitalization project that could bring a crosswalk and outdoor seating to his doorstep, and he firmly believes things are looking up for the city’s business district

 “When Benco decided they were leaving, all you heard was the negative – Belle Plaine is going to dry up and blow away. You can’t do that,” he said, noting that sort of attitude makes people want to look for a better place. He pointed out new businesses that have opened downtown in recent years, including New 2 You, Double Take Design and Honey Creek Outdoors.

 “Things are picking up, even the way the economy is. I think it’s good there are this many places moving ahead here in Belle Plaine,” he stated.

Members of Faith Baptist Church in Belle Plaine, the Clarks intend to run a Christian business and give God the glory for everything He does.

Business hours for American Laser Graphics, Clark’s Soda Shoppe and Paper Cuts & Other Stuff will be posted at the store. For more information, call (319) 444-8258.

UPDATED May 11, 2010 2:21 PM

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