In our monthly Made in the Tri-States feature, we highlight some of the area’s signature products.
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Key City Creative Center
Address: 1781 White St., Dubuque.
Founded in: 2017.
Founded in: 2020.
Founded in: 2020.
During the past two years, Seth Walters’ life has taken a 180-degree turn.
At the outset of 2020, Walters was living in New York City, where he was doing video production work to market Broadway plays. Today, the Iowa native is back in his home state, attempting to grow his new woodworking business in Dubuque.
“I used to take selfies with celebrities,” Walters said. “Now, I take selfies with sawdust.”
His business, Walters Woodworks, is among more than a dozen businesses operating out of Key City Creative Center in downtown Dubuque.
The sprawling facility, located at 1781 White St., offers space and resources to a wide variety of needs.
Executive Co-Director Brian Graham said it serves about 90 members, who use the space in a variety of ways.
“Some people are down here because they are hobbyists,” Graham said. “For others, it is more of a side hustle — they’re using the center for a part-time job. And then, there are some people who are running their business full-time out of here.”
Key City Creative Center was launched in 2016 by local resident and teacher Tim Hitzler, who remains the building owner and a fixture at the site.
To business owners such as Walters, it has been an ideal fit.
“When I first learned about it, I thought, ‘This is perfect,’” Walters recalled. “It has things that a new business wouldn’t normally have access to — the big saws, the milling materials, a laser cutter. And there is just so much space for big projects.”
Spread through three floors, Key City Creative Center boasts a woodshop, a metalworking area and a crafting area.
But it’s not only appealing to those who are working with their hands. With a vast meeting room and multiple offices, the building also is home to businesses that do everything from public relations to T-shirt design.
Walters grew up in Cedar Rapids and recently married a Dubuque native. He quit his job on Broadway and headed back to the Hawkeye State in the spring of 2020, as New York City was in the grips of a health crisis related to COVID-19.
“My wife is my biggest driver of sales,” he said, with a laugh. “She posts all my work on social media, and I am getting a lot of orders and requests from her friends.”
Walters makes custom furniture, tables and kitchen items like cutting boards.
Walters’ business is far from the only one taking shape within the walls of Key City Creative Center.
The building now houses a spoon maker, a photography studio, a T-shirt design firm, a jewelry maker, a public relations firm and more.
Dubuque resident Kelley Schiesl launched her business, MyDesk, in the center last year. The business sells customizable desks geared toward kids ages 4 and older.
For Schiesl, the business has represented a new chapter in a career that’s been as varied and colorful as the desks themselves.
She previously was employed in the marketing industry, working for employers in the banking, chamber of commerce and software sectors. As she settles into her new role, Schiesl feels like she is doing so in an ideal area.
She occupies a tiny workspace inside Key City Creative Center, where she stores many of the individual items that later come together to form her finished desks. But she emphasized that the center is about so much more than her individual office.
“It’s amazing to be able to step out of my space and be right in the middle of this giant woodshop,” she said.
MyDesk partners with local manufacturers for different parts of its manufacturing process. The CNC work takes place in Dyersville, Iowa, while fabrication work is done by a company based in Dubuque.
But Schiesl does much of the physical work within the space on White Street, including sanding the wood, gluing the pieces and inserting the metal flanges. The workspace is crucial for the operation, but she emphasized the collaboration is just as important.
“The best thing here is the people,” she said. “It is inspiring.”
As MyDesk approaches its one-year anniversary, Schiesl is realizing how important that camaraderie can be. She has bounced ideas off others at Key City Creative and has slowly learned that every aspect of her business — from the marketing to the packaging — benefits from creativity and collaboration.
“The product itself isn’t the only thing where there is room for innovation and creativity,” she said.
Walters is among the many individuals in Key City Creative Center that frequently speak with — and work alongside — Schiesl.
The unpredictability of the business is part of what makes it so invigorating for its owner.
After leaving the biggest city in the U.S. and settling down in Dubuque, Walters is embracing change instead of fearing it.
“Every project is a new challenge, something that is completely different,” Walters said. “That is a big part of what I love about it.”