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For $1, Vinton buys Iowa Braille School to launch $20 million development project

The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton in January in Vinton. The city of Vinton bought the campus for $1 on
The Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton in January in Vinton. The city of Vinton bought the campus for $1 on Thursday from the Iowa Board of Regents and is working with Hobart Historic Renovation to redevelop the historic buildings into residential and commercial space. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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VINTON — In for a dollar, in for $20 million.

Vinton Mayor Bud Maynard presented the Iowa Board of Regents a check for $1 Thursday to buy the 11-building, 40-acre Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School campus.

It was the first dollar of what could be a $20 million investment of state and local funds as well as private capital for a project that will renovate the historic campus.

The Iowa regents closed the school in May 2011 when the number of residential students on the campus had fallen to five. The $2.2 million used to operate the school was to be redirected to hiring teachers and mobility specialists for visually impaired students.

Vinton is working with Hobart Historic Restoration on plans that call for commercial and retail development, including a brew pub in what was the 162-year-old school’s hospital.

B.J. Hobart expects asbestos removal and demolition to start in 30 days along with platting the campus’ green space for senior housing and market rate rental homes in the Benton County seat of 5,000 people.

Her company’s plans call for turning “an underutilized property into a revitalized, functional part of the community again,” Hobart said. “It means a lot to people out there to just have market rate housing here, to have a new brew pub, to have an event center. That alone just means a lot to spark communities.”

Immediate plans call for relocating the city’s police, fire and emergency services from a flood-prone location to the campus, Maynard said.

In a way, the Braille school campus is coming full circle.

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Nancy Beckman of the Mary Ingalls Society — the sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder was a student there from 1881 to 1888 — related that the state awarded Vinton the campus because the town secured the donation of 40 acres and raised $5,000.

The investment today is much larger, but just as the school provided an economic boost to the community more than 150 years ago, Maynard believes it will provide a spark for the community almost equidistant between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

In addition to the construction jobs that will be created by the project, the property for the first time will be on the city and county property tax rolls, Maynard said.

“We’ve proven nothing is impossible with the right attitude and hard work,” he said at the celebration of the transfer of ownership in front of Old Main. It is appropriate, he said, that the campus “dedicated to vision and sight should be a new beginning” for Vinton.

It’s a testament to persistence and creativity, added Robert Levis, regional director for AmeriCorps, which has been housed on the campus since 2008. “They’re using something that’s been a fixture of this community for a long time.”

That’s an example for rural communities across the state, said U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, one of the speakers at the celebration. It starts with a vision and community buy-in, she said.

“Once they have that, they’re going to make it happen,” Ernst said.

At a time like this — in the midst of a pandemic and the aftermath of a hurricane-force storm that damaged homes, businesses and crop — “we needs some good news, Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham said. Her agency awarded the city $2 million for demolition and rehabilitation of buildings on the Braille school campus.

The development “will help drive the economy, not just through a difficult time, but for generations to come,” she said.

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

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