BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – While helping cut the ribbon on the new upper floor apartments in downtown Fort Madison, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds talked to members of the Fort Madison Rotary Club and those at the ceremony about her initiative focusing on rural Iowa.
Reynolds made stops at the Fort Madison Rotary noon lunch and then headed to tour the 18 newly renovated apartments at the Old Lee County Bank Building and the former Cattermole Library rehabbed by Barker Financial Inc., of Iowa City.
Reynolds said the Empower Rural Iowa initiative, which will be headed by Lt. Governor Adam Gregg, will include three task forces and she said nothing is off the table.
“As we travel the state there really are some communities that are doing some great things and there’s no reason we can’t see that in every single corner of the state,” Reynolds said. “We’re talking about investing in rural Iowa and that means housing is always an issue so it’s really great what I’m seeing here today.”
She said the initiative will include three task forces: The Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force will focus its recommendations on improving access to quality housing in rural Iowa. The Growing Rural Iowa Task Force will focus on identifying ways to encourage leadership development and strategic development in rural communities. The Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force will look into effectively and sustainably financing broadband connectivity.
“I’m really excited. They are going to look at what it takes, whether it’s legislation, funding, incentives, and they’re going to report back to me so they’ll put their suggestions together and we should get that in December.”
She compared the program to the comprehensive mental health reform that was executed last year.
“This is much like what we did with the comprehensive mental health reform,” she said. “That was a group of people who really had a compassion and commitment to doing what was right and we took their recommendations, and that was the right thing to do. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that with the recommendations that come out of Empower Rural Iowa.”
Fort Madison Partner Executive Director Tim Gobble opened the ceremony in the shadows of the three-story Old Lee County Bank building’s east side. He said the project fell on hard times, but luckily the Barkers were still in the wings.
“Luckily we came across a group that saw the significance and value in these properties and Fort Madison. I want to congratulate the Barker group for taking on these projects,” Gobble said.
David Barker, CEO and president of Barker Financial, said it really feels good to see it come together.
“When you first see a building like this you wonder what it will take to get it completed. We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” he said. “When we first heard about the project and there were some issues with it, we did some research into Fort Madison and thought it’s a good stable community and there’s a need for housing here and we though the projects could be successful.
“We did have some issues and got good help from all of our federal representatives to intervene with the National Park Service that had legitimate concerns and we were able to get that speeded up.”
Sarah Richardson, David’s wife and partner at Barker’s, said she was impressed with the coordination of the efforts.
“The wonderful thing about this is federal, state, and local support, government, non-government, commercial, private…you know, everyone was involved,” she said.
Barker also said he is interested in looking at how to rehab the building across the street where Mark Schickedanz had set up the construction office. Barker said they will now use part of the space as a leasing office for the apartments and then will look for another tenant. The Fort Madison YMCA will be leasing the space where The Avenue was located to hold some downtown classes.
“I would love to do something upstairs,” Barker said. “It’s a huge space up there and I think we could do a lot. We also own the Sears building and we’d love to look at doing something there, too.”
Jared Herschberger spoke on behalf of U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack who couldn’t make the event. In a prepared statement the Congressman wrote that Community Development Block Grants and federal and state historical tax credits were financial instruments used to help finance the project.
“CDBG is the centerpiece of the federal government’s efforts to help more than 1,200 cities, counties, and states meet the needs of their low and moderate income residents,” Loebsack wrote. “It revitalizes communities and has proven results. Also utilized were federal historical tax credits. In Iowa the credit has helped finance 257 commercial rehabilitation projects from 2002 to 2018 resulting in more than one billion dollars in development and investment and more than 9,000 jobs last year alone.”
Barker said financing also included state tax credits that are being utilized.
Fort Madison Mayor Brad Randolph said the project was touch-and-go for a while, but it’s good to see it finally come to fruition.
“It takes some out-of-the-box thinking sometimes to get things done and this is exactly one of the cases,” Randolph said. “In 2011 when we started the downtown revitalization project, we started seeing some old buildings come to life again and when we had the opportunity to take a stab at some of these bigger buildings in 2013 we thought. ‘Boy, we’re really going places.’
“To see the new life coming back to these older buildings almost get dashed in 2015 by circumstances out of our control, it was fortunate for Fort Madison that David Barker and Barker Financial and the state IEDA stepped back up to the plate to make this thing happen – and they are.”
Reynolds told the group gathered at the ribbon-cutting that Barkers are doing an incredible job of revitalizing communities through a diversity of restoration projects.
“These restoration projects bring energy to the area and help with the revitalization and everything we’re trying to grow,” she said. “The public-private partnerships are the key, the CDBG, the historic credits with local investment as well as the state. And these aren’t easy projects The perseverance and dedication to keep the historic integrity of the building while keeping the project cost efficient isn’t an easy thing to do. But keep going. You have a lot of beautiful buildings so I challenge you.”