BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – It’s been years in the works, but the upper apartment phase of a rehab project in downtown Fort Madison is close to completion.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony has been set for next Tuesday at the Old Lee County Bank building and the Cattermole building as construction crews and contractors finish up on the 18 new upper floor apartments in the two buildings.
Governor Kim Reynolds is scheduled to attend the ribbon-cutting after speaking at Fort Madison Rotary’s noon luncheon.
Barker Financial, Inc., the Iowa City real estate firm, took over the projects in 2016. The projects have been in the works for many years, starting with Franz Community Investors who bailed on the project several years ago. Barker picked up ownership of the projects and have been working with local contractors since that time to rehab both buildings. The company also purchased the Sears building on Avenue G and even more recently acquired the building that housed The Avenue and The Bookmark, from local contractor Mark Schickedanz.
Schickedanz has been using the building as a project manager’s office as the lead contractor for the two projects.
Barker was the lender for the project when the Franz brothers had it, but then had to decide to either forclose on the project or take it over.
Kyle Galloway, CFO for Barker, said they wanted to help Fort Madison see the project through. He said he learned more from the project than he thought he would.
“This was kind of new ground for us,” Barker said. “We are traditionally lenders and apartment investors with very little development experience. We decided that this was a little bit riskier, with the buildings in the condition they were in, but it just didn’t feel right leaving them in that shape.”
Barker, which was on a short timeline with Community Development Block Grants and some historical tax credits on the projects, decided to jump into the project. Galloway said there were remaining funds in a CDBG Disaster Recovery grant and to access those grants, 51% of the apartments have to be for low-to-moderate income renters.
“We were really the only ones at that time that could’ve made that work,” Galloway said. “So we said, ‘Let’s go with it.’ We’ve learned a lot along the way and it’s been a lot of fun learning about those buildings and the role they’ve played in Fort Madison’s history.”
Fort Madison Partners’ Director Tim Gobble said that project has been ongoing since he came on board dating back to the Franz Brothers and he said he’s happy to see the upper apartments coming to completion.
“That’s the bigger piece of it, seeing this become a viable option for upper housing downtown,” Gobble said. “And they will be move-in ready. People won’t have to worry about moving into a historical place with all that comes with that. It’s ready to go. And they’ve held onto a lot of the original woodwork so you have a building hundreds of years old, but will be new.”
Gobble said he also hoped it would spur additional development downtown as commercial developers could come in and provide some of the amenities that you’d typically see in a downtown.
He said the project was a lot more complicated than starting an apartment complex from scratch, but the company was able to pick up where previous planners had left off and brought back the original architects.
The project didn’t go completely as planned and some decorative windows held the project up for almost five months. But Galloway said Barker Financial President David Barker is a fan of history and the company wanted to rehab the upper floors trying to hold onto as much history as possible.
At the Old Lee County Bank, contractors were able to pull original wood trim and label it and set it aside to be reattached around windows and door frames. Original lead glass windows were pulled out and sent away to be cleaned and then sent back to be reinstalled. The original building had only one staircase that went up the middle of the building, but contractors built two brand new stairwells from scratch on both ends of the building for greater access.
ADA regulations required two of the apartments at the bank building to be ADA compliant, however the Cattermole, which has only four upstairs apartments, was not required to have an ADA apartment, according to one of Schickedanz project managers, Pebbles Schneider.
Schneider said those apartments are completed and ready to move in.
“We still need to get a certificate of occupancy from the city, and then the state will be informed we have that, and then we should be able to start leasing the apartments,” Schneider said. “Kyle’s been working with the state economic development people, so that shouldn’t take very long.”
City Fire Chief Joey Herron and City Building Director Doug Krogmeier have to inspect the units before the city can generate the certificate of occupancy.
Schneider said contractors are putting the finishing touches on the rest of the apartments.
“We just finished putting in and painting the windows,” Schneider said. “Actually we’re just doing some final touches in the apartments and cleaning.”
She said the apartments range from 500 to 900 square feet and are one and two-bedroom units.
Galloway, who had cautiously hoped that the project would be completed by the end of 2017, said 85% of the project went very smoothly.
“With these historical buildings there always seems to be some difficulties,” he said. “For us it was more preserving the building the right way and that isn’t always the cheapest or easiest, but we were going to do it right. We had to keep the historic integrity of the building.”
He said the upper floors are new to be sure, but he said they are almost indistinguishable from how they looked more than 100 years ago.
“Those arched windows on the bank building are very large and very unique,” Galloway said. “I’m a CPA and I don’t do a whole lot of this outside of this project. I didn’t realize the extent and how difficult it was to manufacture those arched replacement windows. That took a while. It was even challenging for the window company. When we first started working on them, we didn’t even know if it was going to be possible to do.”
He said despite the challenges, it was satisfying to see those historic windows get put back in the buildings. He said despite the original design, the windows are tempered and are more resistant to high winds, such as the storm that went through the area in March of 2017 that blew out some of the older windows.
“We had long shards of glass that were blown 40 to 50 feet in from the windows. These new windows, although the original design, are made with better glass and that won’t happen with these,” Galloway said.
Contractors can’t legally start working on the main floor commercial areas until the apartments are completed and the certificates are in place. Galloway said that process should move fairly quickly, but was cautious in setting a date because of the unforeseen.
“That’s a much more straight-forward renovation and I think it will move fairly quickly. I’ve been hesitant to put times on things, but as soon as we can get the certificate of occupancy we’ll get the IEDA to come in and do their inspection, hopefully at the beginning of August,” he said. “I would love to have it done by the end of the year, and that would be our expectation.”
Galloway said he’s been happy with project timeline aside from the windows, but said he was more happy that the group was able to help restore some historic buildings that can now be a part of Fort Madison going forward.
“I would say we are happy. Just from the standpoint that we’re real estate guys and these are amazing buildings that have been around for more than a hundred years and now they will be useful for hopefully another hundred years,” he said.
“This is business plus art. We were doing things you don’t normally do for aesthetic reasons. It was kind of fun to get into the history of these building and the history of Fort Madison and how they’ve played a central role. Hopefully we can help make them an essential part going forward, too. It’s been fun and I’m happy that we’re getting close.”
With regard to the newest purchase, he said some initial planning has been done, but nothing more.
“We’ve done some initial plans on what can be done with that building,” he said. “Right now we have some small potential to repurpose that space. It’s a smaller project but we think it can be a start to augmenting some of the buildings around this larger project.”