BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A group of about 15 economic and education officials took a tour of a section of the former Iowa State Penitentiary as part of diligence work in putting together plans for a regional education center.
Officials from local banks, industries, schools and economic development officials toured the former habitat section of the prison industries facilities where cabinets and materials were constructed for all Habitat For Humanity projects across Iowa.
ISP Executive officer Rebecca Bowker escorted the group through the facility which is located under the old prison gymnasium. Some of the rooms toured were the prison library, several cabinet construction rooms, an industrial sewing room and other auxilliary rooms used in the industries programs. 14,000 square foot.
Several rooms still had boots and books and construction materials just where they were left when the units were closed down.
The group has been touring regional education centers to get a sense for how successful programs are put together and find out what kind of programming is in place and what types of funds are going to be needed to get the program up and running.
Bowker said a study, required by the Department of Natural Resources and administered through the state’s Department of Administrative Services, would need to be completed before any additional physical progress could take place.
“The study was researched in 2015 would cost $150,000 to $200,000 and would be administered by DAS, but that includes the whole campus and all the structures,” Bowker said. “Maybe a smaller study could be done that would cost less, but I can’t speak to that. So there are some significant costs associated with it but right now our budget doesn’t include that $200,000 study at this time.”
She said the prison is currently spending $1,000 per day in utility costs inside the secure perimeter so a project like this would help the prison with it’s resources.
“It’s a decent space with some basic stuff in there that you may need. We did talk about parking, there is a separate what we used to call a wagon gate where they used to roll in the old galllows, that would probably be the door that would have to be modified for whatever program you would use. That would be the entrance and somehow parking would have to take place in there,” she said.
Lee County Economic Development Chief Operating Officer Dennis Fraise, said the visit was just part of the overall research on the possibility of a Lee County regional education center. The LCEDG has taken a facilitating role with the project.
The center would be a facility for high school and adult education trade course and continuing education courses. The project would require the collaboration of industries, business and educational centers including county high school and Southeastern Community College.
“The whole idea is just to shake the bushes. I think everyone’s preference would be to have a nice facility like those we’ve toured, but we have to do our diligence because you get questions like why don’t you repurporse a building and that’s a whole different set of worms,” Fraise said.
“There some plusses. It has the garage doors and some of the things that would be good, but can you overcome the stigma. That’s the psychology aspect of it.”
Fraise said the prison, if and when the $200,000 study was completed and showed some feasibility, would probably be eligible for some state and federal grants to offset some of the costs of the renovations, but he said more research would need to be done to see if that made financial sense.
“There’s a possibility of that. No one is suggesting it’s a perfect scenarior, but it’s part of our group’s due diligence. We don’t want to leave any stone unturned. Let’s go look at it. Let’s get a cost estimate. It’s just part of the process.”
He said the original timeline was to have something up and running by the 2019 school year.
“But that’s just us sticking our finger in the wind and not knowing things – like how to pay for it.”
The group was scheduled to also tour the former Midwest Academy near Keokuk, but that tour was postponed until a later date.