Government

Vinton has new vision for former Braille school

$40M plan includes housing, event space and offices

Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. The city of Vinton is working with Hobart Hist
Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. The city of Vinton is working with Hobart Historic Renovation on a plan to redevelop the site’s historic buildings into residential and commercial space. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Vinton has a new vision for the “Iowa College for the Blind” that has been a part of the Benton County community for 162 years.

Working with a private developer, the city hopes to give new life to the 48-acre campus on the west side of town. The plan for commercial and housing development could exceed $40 million of public and private funds, City Administrator Chris Ward said.

A key to the plan is the city’s application for $2 million in state funds — to be evenly split between demolition and rehabilitation of buildings on the campus of the former Braille and Sight Saving School, as it was formally named.

Vinton was the lone applicant for $2 million the 2019 Iowa Legislature made available for razing and rehabilitating vacant state buildings that cost the state about $2 million a year to maintain, according to Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf. The state has more than 50 buildings at 11 Corrections, Natural Resources and Human Services facilities across the state, some empty and unused for 10 years, he said.

The idea is for the Iowa Economic Development Authority to award funds to parties interested in buying the vacant buildings to demolish those that are of no further use and renovate others. The funds would be seed money for developments that would generate economic activity, job creation and property taxes.

It’s an ambitious project for a city with a population of about 5,200, Ward said. The City Council and community members have been working on the plan for about two years since learning the Board of Regents would sell the campus to the city for $1.

The transfer of the property has been authorized by the regents, but not yet completed.

In its application, the city emphasized the state funds would represent about 16 percent of the total investment for the rehabilitation, with the remaining investment provided by the developer. Vinton is working with Hobart Historic Restoration, a company that has undertaken several projects in Cedar Rapids. Ward expects Hobart will receive assistance from the city through tax increment financing.

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A decision on Vinton’s application may come as early as next week, according to the state economic development agency.

The aging campus, which includes nearly 200,000 gross square feet of building space, has cost the regents millions over the years in upkeep and maintenance expenses — which continued to mount even after the regents closed the school’s residential program in Vinton in 2011. That year, winds tore the roof off the main building, causing more than $6 million in damage.

Plans for the renovated campus haven’t been finalized, Ward said, but likely will include demolition and reconstruction of certain exterior structures attached to an 1862 building, demolition of interior walls to repurpose for new uses, demolition and remediation of interior structures to remove asbestos and other environmental concerns.

Although demolition is part of the project, Ward said “it’s not exactly demolition demo.” For the most part, it’s a matter of removing asbestos and bringing buildings up to code.

“We have to do those type of things, but still preserve the historical structures,” Ward said, adding, “Hobart has as deep as a good track record of doing this right.”

It calls for transforming buildings into senior independent living apartments, updating space for AmeriCorps staff and students, developing a space for wedding receptions and other community events and adding a restaurant, Ward said. Plans also call for new construction on vacant campus land for workforce housing, mixed-use space and the city’s new emergency management facility.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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