Forest Grove School

This was the scene in early 2012 when restoration efforts got underway.

DES MOINES — The classrooms where generations of Iowa schoolchildren were taught reading, writing and 'rithmetic have given way to display shelves featuring work gloves, duct tape and motor oil.

Boone Valley Community School opened its doors to the students of Renwick, Iowa, in 1912. Now, just more than 100 years later, it’s Ron Seimens’ farm supply store, Boone Valley Implement and Hardware.

It’s the kind of story that Gov. Terry Branstad might promote as part of his initiative to give state tax credits to turn abandoned schools and other public buildings into businesses.

But some who have taken on these projects in the past say it’s a tough sell, tax credits or not.

“Some of the schools and public buildings which used to be the source of that pride are now empty shells dotting the landscapes of our communities. Once filled with the hustle and bustle of schoolchildren and their teachers, these are more than just abandoned buildings,” Branstad said during his Condition of the State speech this month. “Let's turn what used to be our centers of education into centers of commerce. Let's repurpose the crumbling structures with renewed investment and reinforce the foundation with new jobs.”

Seimens bought the building for $5,000 in 1989, a rock-bottom price for what he says is a “solidly built” building that became available with the dissolution of the school district a year before. Since then, however, he estimates he has put $500,000 into the building, and it’s not something he would do again.

“The problem with a school is it is very inefficient,” Siemens said. “You had tax money feeding it, so they built the most unefficient buildings ever made.”

When he bought the school, for instance, it cost $200 a day to heat. He added insulation and added some energy-saving equipment, and now it costs him about $35 a day. The flat school roof had to be replaced with a steel one, but he’s thankful he didn’t run into asbestos problems.

“I hate to be the bearer of the real world, but I think to build new would run cheaper,” he said.

How it would work

Branstad would expand the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s brownfield and grayfield tax credit programs to cover abandoned public buildings under a pair of study bills — House Study Bill 540 and Senate Study Bill 3050 — filed Thursday afternoon.

This is a program through which the state makes tax credits available for people to purchase and rehab hard-to-clean-up properties, such as abandoned gas stations.

“There are always issues, like underground storage tanks with gas stations, that’s why people are reluctant to take on these things,” said Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Under the proposal, some of the $10 million in tax credits available for brownfields and grayfields would be available for mothballed public buildings, be they schools, city halls or any other shuttered government buildings.

Tax credits could help mitigate the cost of rehab in an effort to make a commercial or industrial use out of the building.

Or demolish it.

“I doesn’t bother me (that demolition is an option),” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, vice chairman of the House Economic Development Committee. “I think you have buildings all over Iowa that could be saved. I also think you have some that can’t.”

A saved building

Luverne Schmidt, a fifth-generation farmer from rural Klemme, said offering tax credits is only part of the equation if the state wants to save old public buildings.

“You really need community support,” he said.

Schmidt, his wife and another couple bought the shuttered Klemme Community School in 2000. They sold it a decade later.

“I think at best we broke even,” Schmidt said.

The school was built in 1939 with a bond issue and money from the federal Public Works Administration. A 1957 expansion added an elementary.

By the 1990s, Klemme had merged with the surrounding school districts, and the building eventually was closed.

“Basically, we didn’t want it to turn into a junk yard, so we bought it,” Schmidt said. “But we didn’t have anything definite in mind when we purchased the building, and you need to have something in mind.”

Like Siemens, Schmidt had to replace the flat roof. He and his partners ran an eatery out of the school, but, he said, they didn’t get the support they needed.

“I think if the state wants to do this, they should approach it with matching funds from the community,” he said. “You need to have community involvement. You need community ownership.”