BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – In just two weeks, a quickly assembled tour of the old prison generated more than seven tons of food for the local food pantry and put money in the coffers of the P.A.W. animal shelter.
Final numbers released today indicated that 3,552 people signed up to go through the tour on Sunday, and many didn’t get a chance to sign in, as volunteers hustled people into the tours to try and get as many people as possible through the facility.
The P.A.W. no-kill animal shelter in Fort Madison raised almost $1,500 in bottled water sales and donations while North Lee County Community Food Pantry volunteers made 14 van trips from the prison to their office with more than 14,000 pounds of non-perishable food items and some cash donations.
Jean Peiton, tourism director for the City of Fort Madison, started working social media prior to the event getting people to hashtag #ThisIsIowa, the Iowa Economic Development Authorities tracker hashtag, to show the volume of interest in the facility and its history to people in the region.
Brooke Miller, IEDAs social media manager said she couldn’t really comment on the event since she didn’t know a lot about it going in.
“But we saw the huge reaction based on those hashtags. I saw all that pouring in,” Miller said.
“The (Department of Corrections) really pushed to try to get everyone through,” Peiton said.
She had set up a table at the tour entrance on the east side of the administration building to inform people of the importance and potential of the 20-acre property.
“Conservative estimates are that we probably turned away 500 people that didn’t make it through. and that doesn’t count the people we’re seeing on social media who didn’t stop due to the long lines,” she said. ” I would safely say 5,000 people showed up.”
Iowa tourism officials will be in Fort Madison on Thursday for annual visits not linked to Sunday’s event.
“It will be very interesting because I commandeered their hashtag so they’ll be well aware of what I’ve been up to the last week or so,” Peiton said.
When asked what her hopes for the facility were after the event, Peiton said she hopes the numbers show people locally, regionally, and at the state level that this is a project worth looking into.
“A very unique thing that other communities don’t have and it proved itself yesterday,” she said. “I’m hoping people will stop with this ‘it will never work’ concept and see we’ve got to make it work.”
Peiton said she envisions concepts such as a possible hotel in the CCU center, a restaurant in the prison’s mess hall, a convention center in the power plant section of the facility, tours and museums, and even a potential outside venue for carnivals, concerts, and car shows, to name a few.
“We want to do the tours and the tours can be done, but that doesn’t have to be the backbone of what sustains the prison at this point.”
Currently Iowa owns the facility and neither the city nor a non-profit organization has stepped forward to purchase the facility due to the costs associated with maintaining the prison. Peiton said she’s hoping maybe the state would create an agreement that allows the tourism group to use the building and possibly raise funds for development.
“I will tell you at this point, that not the city nor a non-profit is willing to come in and say, ‘Let us take this over for you, State of Iowa’, but maybe we can move it towards somebody coming in here and making it into something new.”
Peiton also said the facility isn’t currently marketed to Iowa’s film databank, but it is something that could be done. She said the odds of getting a “Shawshank” type movie coming in are slim.
“Would we love to see that yes, absolutely, but that’s not what I’m banking on,” Peiton said. “Yesterday, say if we charged $5 per person. You’re looking at $15,000. $10 would be $30,000. If we could get some type of agreement to utilize the inside of the facility, and then say we take a weekend and we have bands go in there and set up a carnival inside there. If we did a tour once a month for a year, we could raise the money for the development of the inside.”
Attendance at The Old Fort was also up on Sunday with more than 200 people going into the historical site.
Sandy Brown, director of P.A.W. said she was happy they were asked to be part of the event.