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“This is going to be a cool place to live.” Angela Rheingans shared that sentiment during a tour of the former Iowa Mutual Insurance buildings at 509 Ninth St., DeWitt, Iowa. If all goes as planned, the long-vacant, two-building business facility will be renovated and reinvented into a $15 million project. The major renovation project will create 53 apartments and be ready for renters in about a year. But Ms. Rheingans, the executive director of the DeWitt Chamber and Development Company, is already getting calls from potential residents who want a new apartment. “People are already calling me and asking, ‘Angela, when are those apartments going to happen?’ … We really need more housing. Really, housing is the biggest hindrance to our growth as a community,” she told the QCBJ. There is such a shortage that when DeWitt houses go on the market, they often sell in a day or less, and often for far above the asking price, she said. DeWitt is not alone with its need for more housing, especially more apartments. Community and economic officials from across the Quad Cities region report a booming business environment in their communities, but a near emergency situation for more housing development. That situation is spurring eastern Iowa and western Illinois communities to follow a growing trend: transforming old, vacant business and school buildings into new apartments. In fact, 2022 is expected to be a boom year for apartment construction. There will be more than 426,000 apartment units built across the nation. That’s the highest volume on record in the past 40 years, according to RealPage, a property management software provider. Last year, there were hundreds of older buildings across the country converted into apartment buildings. More than 40% of those conversion projects took place in old office buildings, according to RentCafe, a nationwide apartment search website. On the regional front in West Liberty, Iowa, a project to transform a vacant brick building built in the late 1800s into apartments and commercial space has received a $200,000 state grant. “This project is coming at the perfect time for our community,” said Ken Brooks, executive director of the West Liberty Economic Area Development (WeLead). “West Liberty’s economy is booming, our storefronts are filled, our existing homes are at capacity, and local business and industry is expanding.” In nearby Aledo, Illinois, an apartment transformation will center on the old Aledo Junior High School building. An $11.8 million project, announced in February, will turn the building into the Northside Lofts with 30 units. Construction is expected to begin in November and the new apartments could be ready for residents by the fall of 2023. “Taking a vacant school that once impacted the lives of so many and bringing it back to life makes me proud of what I do,” Andrew Fisher, an Aledo resident and construction director of General Contracting, the project manager, said earlier when the project was announced. “It’s so much better because I know people who attended that school, and I know this will make Aledo an even better place to live.” Upriver from the Quad Cities, one of its historic buildings in Clinton, Iowa, is also being transformed into apartments. The Wilson Lofts renovation project is about 70% complete and is expected to open to renters this summer. The project is converting the historic Wilson Building in downtown Clinton into 33 residential rental units and commercial space on the first floor. As of late May, there were 53 households on the waiting list, according to Charlotte Flickinger, vice president for Economic Growth Corp. (GROWTH), the Rock Island-based non-profit organization behind the Wilson redevelopment. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest and growth regarding apartment living,” said Andy Sokolovich, president and CEO of Grow Clinton, a new combined economic development organization. A ribbon-cutting ceremony may be held in August for the Wilson Building renovation. Rents are expected to range from $590 to $1,115 a month, according to Grow Clinton. Mr. Sokolovich added that there is such a great need for apartments in Clinton, that another old building may be transformed. He said “potential redevelopment” plans are in the works to turn the Lafayette building at 143 6th Ave. South into 50-plus apartment units and first-floor commercial space. Last year, Bryce Henderson of Bush Construction approached the Clinton City Council and asked for city financial help with the $18.5 million Lafayette project. At that time, the goal was to turn the ground floor of the building into retail space, and create studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments on the second through fifth floors. Meanwhile, in DeWitt, the Iowa Mutual building apartment project was expected to move into high gear this summer when interior renovation work begins. At one point, the project was slated for a fall completion but it has faced delays over funding, historic preservation and supply chain issues. If all goes according to plan, the new-look building will be open to renters sometime next year. Earlier this summer, A.J. Loss, president and CEO of Bush Construction; Brett McCausland, pre-construction manager with Bush; and Ms. Rheingans toured the vacant Iowa Mutual building with the QCBJ. At that time, there were hopes interior work on the building would start in July. However, in mid-July, Mr. Loss said that company officials still are waiting on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to move on the project in order to finalize construction financing. “We are still waiting for HUD to assign financing staff to review this project. Until that occurs, we will not be able to close on construction financing,” he said. Mr. Loss was hopeful work would begin on Sept. 1, “but that’s completely dependent on HUD at this point,” he added. Despite the delays and the fact the building has sat vacant a few years, Bush leaders are very happy with the condition of the building. Mr. Loss called it one of the better maintained buildings he has ever come across. In fact, until recently, the carpets in the old building were still being vacuumed, a caretaker was looking after the building and it was still largely filled with furniture from its insurance building days. (That furniture was removed this spring and much of it was donated.) “It’s a great old building… There is really nothing scary about this project,” said Mr. McCausland, Bush’s pre-construction manager. “There is nothing that will come up and make us say ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to have a problem.’” Even though there will be a lot of work done to the building interior to create 53 apartments, many of the old features will remain. For instance, an old vault on the first floor will remain and become an apartment closet. “Somebody is going to have a very nice, big closet,” Mr. McCausland added. Some of the other old features that will remain and see new life include: a rock wall inside a former executive office will become a unique feature to an apartment; wood paneling inside a former office will stay; an old dumbwaiter system in the building will stay in place, but will be closed off; a large wood art piece in a hallway of the 1974 building will remain in place; and a balcony outside the former company president’s office will remain. But not all the features will stay. For instance, two large safes will be removed. An executive office bathroom will stay in the building, but will probably never be used again. Plans call for walling it off. “There will be no cookie-cutter apartments in this building,” said Ms. Rheingans. Here are some of the project’s highlights:
- The building will be transformed into the Iowa Mutual Lofts with 53 market-rate apartments including studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. Construction is expected to begin in September and be complete in about 11 months. Potential rent rates have not been released yet.
- Total investment in the project will be about $15 million.
- The project recently received a $600,000 grant through the state’s Downtown Housing Grant program.
- The new apartments will be located near downtown DeWitt and within walking distance of many businesses.
- Some of the features will include on-site parking, covered parking, lower-level storage, a gym and movie room.
- The two-building facility was built in several stages between 1924 and 1974. The iconic L-shape design connects the two buildings. There is about 63,000 square feet of total space in the facility.
- At its employment peak, Iowa Mutual had about 200 people working in the building, according to Ms. Rheingans. The building has been vacant since 2019 after Iowa Mutual merged with Encova. About 35 employees still were working in the building at the time of its closure.