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Options for Osage's Washington School discussed

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OSAGE - Just when it started to look like Washington School could soon be a memory, new options for its use came to light during a recent meeting between community leaders and the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Following a recent decision made by the Osage School Board to not sell the building, a concerned citizen contacted the Society and requested the agency's assistance in having another discussion about the former school, built in 1916. The building was closed by the district in 2009.

Paula Mohr, Certified Local Government Coordinator with the State Historic Preservation Office, and Jack Porter, Preservation Consultant, met with Penney Morse of the Mitchell County Historic Preservation Commission for a tour of the school. The three also served as a panel to answer questions to the 25 or so who attended, including Superintendent of Schools Steve Bass and School Board President Konnie Snider.

"First, I have to tell you that we (Porter and Mohr) have seen a lot of historic buildings in very bad condition and this is not one of them," said Mohr.

"As I like to say, it has ‘good bones.'"

"We saw quite a bit of historic ‘fabric' inside the building. From the high ceilings, great lighting, wooden floors, marble staircase, to solid walls and ceilings, the building has a lot to offer," Porter said.

Concern has been raised about the cost of rehabilitating the historic structure.

"There are lots of things you could do with the building and still maintain its historic appearance," said Mohr.

Both Mohr and Porter agreed it was not a far reach to convert the classrooms into apartments.

"The building offers lots of options with apartments upstairs and office space as incubator space for non-profits or small businesses," said Mohr.

Examples were given of such projects in Spencer, Oskaloosa, and Waterloo. In each case, school buildings were turned into apartments.

"You still need to ask yourself the question, ‘How will apartments affect the overall structure of the building?' " said Porter.

Both reminded the audience that no matter what future project might be undertaken, the integrity of the building must be maintained.

If there was asbestos and lead paint present in the building, Porter said, "If you don't need to move it (asbestos), leave it alone. In regards to the lead paint, cover it up or remove it properly."

The two shared financial assistance available through state and federal tax incentives.

The first was the state historic tax credit, which provides 25% of qualified rehabilitation costs as a credit against the owner's state income taxes.

The second is a federal historic tax credit, which provides 20% of qualified rehabilitation costs as a credit against federal income taxes.

Porter said the state tax credit is a refundable tax credit and the federal tax credit is a strictly a "credit" that can be used over the course of 20 years on the project.

"If you have a $1 million project, you could realistically receive $450,000 in state and federal tax credits," said Porter. "You as well could apply for other grants and programs."

Porter and Mohr are the committee members who decide applications for the state historic tax credit.

The discussion follows a controversial decision made by the board in December to not sell the building to developer Jim Adams of Winthrop, on a 3-2 vote, when some board members expressed concern about the veracity of some of Adams' claims.

This is not the first time praise has been given the building.

In August 2010, Douglas Steinmetz, Historic Preservation Technical Assistance Architect, toured the building.

In his detailed report, he said, "In general, the building appears well-maintained and would be considered an excellent rehabilitation opportunity as a community historic resource grant, given a compatible use with community support."

Jim Cross is a reporter for the Mitchell County Press-News, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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