In 2014, the Ackley-Geneva-Wellsburg-Steamboat Rock (AGWSR) Community School District moved its elementary students into a new $7.2 million modern building a few blocks from the old school in Ackley. While the new building enhances positive student outcomes, it also left the former elementary school – built in 1929 – as a vacant space in the midst of town.
Ackley certainly is not alone in facing this phenomenon. According to the Des Moines Register, there were 13,433 school houses in Iowa in 1894; most of these were considered their own public school district. Today, there are 338 districts across the state.

According to AGWSR officials, the school district has “exhausted all possibilities for that building,” with a number of groups touring the building with no further action. The district has maintained the outside of the building and has kept electricity running to the building as well. A comprehensive assessment of the building can be found in Appendix E. The adjacent parking lot is used for daycare and preschool parking, too, but the site obviously is underused, especially considering its prime location and strong architecture.

Newbo Market

Located in the heart of Cedar Rapids’ New Bohemia District, the NewBo City Market is bustling space that promotes “health, happiness, and well-being.” It is home to food and retail business startups, farmers and artisans markets, and community arts, entertainment, and educational events.

NewBo highlights local talent and resources and offers the community an example of sustainability and resilience. NewBo employs sustainable business practices and is a testament to the community’s resilience after being flooded by 13 feet of water in 2008. NewBo has become the community hangout for residents and visitors alike, enriching Cedar Rapids’ social fabric and strengthening the tie between local producers and consumers.

To re-energize the former school, the building should be repurposed as a mixed-use facility. The two upper levels should be converted to one- and two-bedroom apartments, while the main floor should be transformed into a restaurant and multi-county public market.

The first floor should be modeled in the vein of Cedar Rapids’ NewBo City Market, Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market, and Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. The restaurant should showcase locally-sourced ingredients and offer a seasonal, rotating menu. This kind of menu will highlight and support healthy eating habits. Additionally, the restaurant will be able to source produce directly from the market vendors, giving those vendors a steady customer with significant needs.

Besides produce, the market vendors should offer a variety of goods for sale and also should function as a community gathering space. The market should offer regular programming designed to bring a mix of community members together and should support local entrepreneurs. Ideally, the market should have a mix of regular and rotating vendors, spurring repeat visits and enabling burgeoning businesses to test the market for their respective offerings. A business plan for the market can be found in Appendix F.

Meanwhile, the apartments – former classrooms – should be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units. The designs should seek to maintain and celebrate the building’s history as a school while offering modern amenities required by potential tenants. Achieving this balance will differentiate the apartments from other units in the area and will be a selling point.

For the concept to work financially, the building should be divided via a condominium plan, with the first floor included in one unit and the other floors comprising the second unit. A developer should acquire the entirety of the building and, upon completion of the renovation, the first floor condo should be sold back to the City of Ackley or another community-focused entity. The City or other community entity could then either operate the first floor itself or lease the space to a group focused on managing the restaurant and public market.

While a more in-depth analysis of the building and renovation needs to be completed, it will be imperative to attract an investor with at least $500,000; initial estimates show this amount should be recouped within ten years while earning a 12 percent return. To accomplish this, the developer will need to pursue a mix of development incentives, including state and federal historic tax credits, workforce housing tax credits, TIF, tax abatement, and other grants. It should be noted, too, that the school district is willing to sell the building for $1 to the right developer and also is willing to take care of the necessary asbestos removal, providing significant cost savings for the developer.

Action Steps

Establish non-profit to manage public market

Ackley Economic Development

Work with attorney in pro-bono capacity to incorporate as 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Develop other necessary guiding documents.

Q3 2018

secure developer and design buildout


Vet developers with comprehensive search; consider RFP process. Select preferred developer. Enter into development agreement with company as “preferred developer,” giving it exclusive rights to negotiate details of the agreement but leaves the nonprofit in control of all parameters of the project.

Q1 2019

conduct economic feasibility study


Hire consulting team to review cost of renovating the building into two condominiums. Determine total development costs as well as potential funding sources. Develop pro forma, including estimated rents for apartments. Give project a go-no go recommendation. If project is a go, secure necessary financing.

Q2 2019

construction, marketing, and opening


Complete renovations of building. During construction process, share videos and pictures to generate community interest and excitement. Begin pre-leasing apartment units and spaces for market vendors. Hold grand opening event. Continue regular marketing efforts.

Q1 2020