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Charles City School District more active as it looks for North Grand Building solutions

The North Grand Building (Press file photo James Grob.)
The North Grand Building (Press file photo James Grob.)
By James Grob,

The Charles City School District has taken a more extroverted role in recent weeks as it tries to decide what to do with the old middle school — now known as the North Grand Building.

In a release on Tuesday, the district announced that the school district leadership team “continues to search for the right solution for the next life of the North Grand Building.”

In the release, the school district said it was “seeking out interested partners and we are being met with great initial interest from several parties.”

“We are entertaining all offers at this point,” said Justin DeVore, district director of community engagement. “It doesn’t have to be our idea.”

District leaders began taking a more active role after July 1, when new superintendent Mike Fisher officially began work. Tours of the building have increased and the district is communicating with a handful of developers and introducing them to possible community partners who may be interested in having a role in redevelopment.

“Since July 1, we realize a solution to this building is very important to the school district and to the community, and we are actively searching for ways to repurpose this building for its next life,” DeVore said.

Some of the developers are Midwest-based, some are Iowa-based and one is national, according to DeVore.

“Right now, it’s up to them on how they want to structure it,” he added.

The building, at 500 N. Grand Ave., is listed as the “Charles City Junior-Senior High School” on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1932 and first served as the Charles City High School before becoming first a junior high school then a middle school after a new high school was built in the early 1960s.

It stopped serving as general purpose classrooms when the new middle school opened two years ago.

Currently, the North Grand Building contains district central services (the school district’s business office, superintendent’s office and community engagement office), as well as the Carrie Lane Program, Iowa BIG North, the home school assistance program and the North Grand Gym. The auditorium is also used for district and community events.

The Charles City Community School District Board of Education initially approved an agreement in June 2017 which gave local developers the option to purchase the building for $1, to be developed into apartments, with the stipulation that the developers enter into a development agreement for renovations to the building.

That purchase option expired last December, however, and the former middle school has remained district property. Devore said he was not aware of that offer coming back.

Jaqueline Davidson, director of the Charles City Arts Center, and Stewart Dalton, president of the Charles City Arts Council, met with school district officials last week and were given a tour of the facilities.

Davidson has expressed interest in turning the North Grand Building into some kind of fine arts academy, with classrooms and lofts for artists-in-residence. She has done research on and made contact with housing developers and non-profit organizations that specialize in creating affordable, appropriate places where artists can live and work.

“If we went ahead and combined an art school there, we have the artists there to help teach it. You’ve got everything there, at a great location,” Davidson told the Press last month. “I’m not talking about just visual arts. I’m talking about performing arts, culinary arts, writers, music and theatre.”

Davidson has also addressed some local civic groups about her proposal, and has been in contact with Community Development Director Mark Wicks, Cedar River Complex — an arts center in Osage — and Dominum, a national housing developer that specializes in artist centers.

DeVore didn’t rule out Davidson’s idea.

“Before the newspaper article about the artists’ lofts, we hadn’t thought about that,” DeVore said. “We will entertain all serious ideas.”

The district has previously considered using the building as to relocate high school students during the expected future high school building renovations. It’s been suggested that would be more cost-effective than bringing in portable classrooms as construction takes place.

Moving students completely out of the high school building for a year would also allow crews to demolish the existing high school’s circle wings all at once, potentially shortening the overall timeframe of the project.