WASHINGTON — The Washington Chamber of Commerce held a series of meetings on Monday, Oct. 7, to discuss the possibility of purchasing and restoring the Smouse House with the intent to move it’s offices there. The project has an estimated cost of $2 million.
The meetings, open to members only, were lead by Chamber Executive Director Michelle Redlinger who said the purpose of the meetings was to gauge interest and hear comments and concerns from chamber members, not to make a decision. A separate meeting for members of the Chamber of Commerce Board and representatives from the City of Washington was set to be held later that evening.
She said during that closed meeting, the board would then vote on whether to move forward with the purchase of the building. If the decision was made to purchase the building, additional meetings open to members of the public would be held.
Redlinger opened the 8:30 a.m. meeting by saying many members of the public asked for the chamber to look into the purchase and renovation of the building. Because the chamber is a nonprofit organization, it could possibly receive grants to help with the restoration.
The chamber has looked at the possibility of saving the building in years past, but did not move forward with the project, Redlinger said. The possible restoration has been on the mind of the board, and the chamber has raised $100,000 from various fundraisers to be put toward the project. An additional $500,000 could be available from the City of Washington in the form of tax increment financing (TIF).
According to the Iowa Department of Management, TIF is a tool used for urban renewal projects. It works by freezing the tax base, or property value, within a certain area. The property taxes levied against the frozen tax base provide additional dollars. This money can then be used to make improvements in that designated area.
Washington City Administrator Brent Hinson said the city amended the TIF district last year and made sure to include the building in the amended plans. Before the city can choose to designate the money, he said a series of at least three meetings would need to be held. One to gauge councils interest in designating the TIF dollars toward the project, a public hearing and a public hearing and consideration of the allocation of funds.
Because the chamber has yet to purchase the building, these meetings have not taken place yet. However, Hinson said he felt confident there was “full support” from the council on the matter. The chamber will not re-pay the money as is a nonprofit organization and tax exempt.
To fund the rest of the project, Redlinger said she has identified more than $4 million in grant funds and is actively seeking out new grants. Because the grants are not guaranteed, Redlinger said the possible purchase and renovation of the building would be a risk.
The cost estimate of $2 million is only for the cost to save the building. Additional money would be needed to finish the inside of the building before the chamber is able to move their offices inside.
The cost estimate for the project was done through a structural engineer, which includes addressing the structural problems with the building which include the removal of an abandoned fuel tank, fixing and addressing problems in the roof and foundation, removing environmental hazards and tuck pointing. Redlinger said there are a plethora of issues they will not be able to identify the severity of until contractors are in the space.
Conversations with architects have taken place with the objective of identifying those costs, she said. However, the cost of employing their service was upward of $25,000 and was not deemed an appropriate investment at the time. Redlinger said the only investment the chamber has made in the property to date is time and about $5,000 for the project assessment from the engineer.
“This is an ambitious idea that I think can do a lot for this community, but it is not my decision. It is the decision of our chamber members and that’s why we’re here is to sense the comfort level and bring it to our board to make a decision,” she said.
Redlinger also addressed why the chamber has chosen to look into renovating the building instead of tearing it down and starting new. She said tearing down the building would be easier than a renovation, but by trying to bring the structure back to its former glory, it would be a way to “address an eyesore in the community.” Many of the grants identified have direct ties to renovating a historic property and could not be utilized if the chamber chose to tear the building down and start new.
“I want to be very clear that the board is considering this as a possible project. We do want to have an impact in the community and I think that this has some legs to stand on. There is a lot of possibility in this project,” she said.