As a Democratic Senate candidate, Iowa's Theresa Greenfield is casting herself as a champion of small business. Her job as president of a real estate firm, however, often pitted her against small businesses as she worked to clear out mom-and-pop stores from a shopping center to make way for a multinational corporation.
Greenfield, who is running to unseat GOP senator Joni Ernst, stressed the need to "make sure small businesses aren't crowded out by big corporations" in an April tweet. She went on to criticize Ernst for the state's economic coronavirus response, saying Iowans "need a senator who will actually put workers first" on Wednesday.
As president of a Des Moines-based real estate firm in 2015, Greenfield led a project for big-box grocer Aldi that pitted her against small businesses in Windsor Heights, Iowa.
Her company, Colby Interests, "blindsided" the shopping center's local tenants with eviction notices personally signed by Greenfield, according to small business owners who detailed the situation to the Des Moines Register and CBS affiliate KCCI at the time. Many of the owners had operated in the shopping center for decades, leaving them to scramble in search of a new location. Greenfield's plan to bring the German grocer to the shopping center was ultimately rejected by the Windsor Heights city council following pushback from residents. The move came too late for the tenants, who had already been forced out after Greenfield hiked up rent in the location.
"I hope they get what the city really wants, and I just don't think the people of the city want another grocery store," local business owner Steve Bobenhouse told KCCI after relocating his fitness store from the shopping center in 2015.
Greenfield has touted her role as a "Des Moines business leader" on the campaign trail, including in her June campaign announcement. She received the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's endorsement just three days after she announced. And while Greenfield has cited her work in real estate as an example of her connection to Iowa entrepreneurs, the 2015 project shows a different side of her business dealings, potentially muddying her message against Ernst in one of the country's most hotly contested races.
Greenfield became president of real estate firm Colby Interests in 2012. She received a salary of nearly $230,000 in 2019, according to candidate financial disclosures.
In September 2015, Greenfield announced plans to revamp a retail center owned by Colby Interests, with Aldi anchoring the project. Her proposal called for the demolition of the center's west building to make way for the German grocer, as well as the renovation of the center's east building. Tenants of the west building had already received eviction notices from Greenfield in late July, and she acknowledged to the Des Moines Register that increased rents in the renovated east building may "not fit into" existing tenants' budgets.
"A lot of tenants were blindsided by the fact that they were going to have to move," small business owner Gary Updegraff said after receiving the eviction notice, which gave him 60 days to vacate.
"We tried to stay here but the rent is just going to be too high in the new building and we couldn't find anywhere else in Windsor Heights, otherwise we would have stayed," said the business owner Steve Bobenhouse.
In May 2016, the Windsor Heights city council voted unanimously to kill the plan after local residents voiced objections. The Aldi would have become the fourth big-box grocer within less than one mile, with Hy-Vee, Walmart, and Sam's Club located adjacent to its proposed location.
"The overwhelming message we received was that they would like to see some new uses come into that area," zoning board chairman Dave Knau told KCCI after the council's decision. Nine people spoke out against Greenfield's proposal at the council meeting, including one resident who started a petition to block the project. Just one person spoke in favor of the plan.
Despite the council's decision, Greenfield moved forward with plans to renovate the shopping center's west building, with the Democrat telling Iowa's Business Record the project "will improve the appearance and bones of the structure." Greenfield also revealed she was seeking new tenants, including "national and local restaurants." At least five small businesses were forced to move as a result of the project, and one local bar located in the shopping center shut down for good. New tenants include national pizza chains Marco's Pizza and Papa Murphy's.
Greenfield ran for Congress in Iowa's Third Congressional District in 2018 but failed to make the ballot after her campaign manager admitted to falsifying the petition signatures needed to qualify. She will have to emerge from a crowded primary field before facing Ernst in a race crucial to the Senate majority. The establishment-backed Democrat is currently the primary's top fundraiser, taking in more than $5.6 million since her campaign launch in June. Insurance executive Eddie Mauro, who has loaned his campaign millions, leads the race in spending with nearly $3.3 million. The pair of Democrats will face three others in Iowa's June primary.