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New buildings aren’t always the best solution

Local historian explores some of the reasons why renovation is a worthy option

September 26, 2010
Messenger News

I admire anyone who is willing to serve as an elected official, especially on the local level. It is often a thankless job as they open themselves to conflicts and criticism. Nevertheless, I still feel an obligation to speak to the proposal to build a new middle school. We in Fort Dodge are embarking on a $27 million, possibly a $32 million, project to replace two schools. The reasoning behind the proposal seems very logical and compelling. Both buildings are relatively old and reason might tell us that they have outlived their usefulness and should be replaced with modern buildings more suitable to today's educational trends and needs.

But we all know that times are changing. Our society faces new challenges; the loss of Iowa's grade A farm land, climate change, the need to conserve resources, the need to create a more sustainable economy, a skyrocketing public debt and even the issue of the physical fitness of our young people. The "Tea Party" movement alone behooves us to take another look at how we spend our tax dollars, not just on the federal and state level but also locally.

Costs to the community

Often overlooked in the enthusiasm for new schools are the real costs to a community.

First, existing buildings have a value. A previous generation invested its taxes into their construction. It was that generation's gift to us today. It represents not only an investment in taxes, but also an investment of resources; wood, brick, concrete, steel and energy; resources all of which have to be duplicated if a new building replaces it.

If a new building is constructed what will become of the existing structures?

What are the alternatives?

Alternatives for buildings the size and nature of the two middle schools are highly problematic. It has been suggested that the gymnasium could be acquired by the city for public recreational purposes. Given the financial straits of the city how viable is this? It would seem that the school board should make public what they propose for the buildings.

Failure to find alternative uses means that the buildings would have to be demolished. A major concern in today's society is the growing costs of disposal of wastes. About 40 percent of landfill wastes are materials from either construction or demolition of buildings. We urge our young people to recycle paper, cans and glass and we provide containers in the schools to make recycling easy. At the same time we haul entire buildings to the landfill. In a recent Messenger article Bill McAnally, retired head of the construction program at Iowa Central, said that with increasing economic costs and resource shortages there needs to be more concern with sustainability and reuse of existing buildings.

How does the closing of the two schools impact the entire community?

Does the public gain or lose by moving a school from a central location to the outskirts of the city?

Communities are discovering that more compact development makes tax dollars go further because it reduces the cost of providing services and infrastructure. Paying for infrastructure on the fringes of a community while neglecting buildings and infrastructure in which the community has already invested is not financially prudent.

It must be extremely disheartening for city leaders and downtown property owners to face the loss of two schools, the law enforcement center, the post office, federal offices and two churches at a time when so much effort and money is being expended to revitalize downtown especially as the results of their efforts are now becoming apparent. Private capital has rejuvenated the Carver Building, the Beh/State Bank Building, the old library, and the Wahkonsa Hotel. The new Fareway is a reality and the old Masonic temple will soon be serving a needed social purpose. The downtown will soon be on the National Register of Historic Places which will make the buildings within the district eligible for tax credits and grants for restoration. Rehabbing buildings reassures investors, businessmen and property owners that additional money invested will not be wasted. Abandoning buildings sends just the opposite signals.

What taxpayers expect

When our tax dollars are invested the taxpayer has a right to expect that decision makers consider all of the costs and alternatives, not only for their own area of responsibility, but for the community as a whole, and that the public receives the greatest benefit for the amount of money expended. Successful revitalization requires a unified effort, but it often seems that each governmental unit has its own agenda, each with its own good reasons, but sometimes at cross purposes with others. Such conflicts contribute to the growing cynicism toward government on all levels.

No one can ask the taxpayer to maintain buildings so deteriorated that they are beyond help. However, no one seems to be claiming that this is true about these schools. Likewise, if classroom space exceeds school population needs the closing of one of the schools may be necessary, but it does not necessitate the construction of a new one. Some may argue that the cost of rehabilitating an existing school would exceed the cost of a new one, but has the school district seriously considered rehabilitation as an option? Studies nationally are questioning the move to replace old structures with new ones. The Michigan Land Use Institute, in a recent special report, stated that "In every case we studied, building a new school cost more than renovating the old."

Lessons from recent history

Fifteen years ago the Webster County Courthouse required extensive repairs and upgrading. As we all know it now has been restored at a fraction of the cost of a replacement. We now have a beautiful building of which the community can be justly proud and one which will probably outlast any replacement. Five years ago there was a move to replace the Municipal Building. We were told that extensive repairs and modernization were needed. Consultants, however, reported that a new building would cost about the same as restoring the existing building, but the new one would have a shorter life expectancy. To build a new building of comparable quality to the existing building would cost an additional $3 million.

Private investors are recognizing the financial merits of rehabilitation. How many of us would have believed that the Beh Building could ever be rehabilitated? Investors have rehabbed the Carver Building, the Wahkonsa Hotel and the Carnegie Library. Travel across Iowa and you will find similar successes in city after city.

But if we rehab an old school won't we still have an old school?

Will it really meet the needs of 21st-century students?

New is exciting but is it necessarily better?

Some people might look at our Law Enforcement Center and question the validity of the newness argument. I have yet to see any study which equates new buildings with improved quality of education.

We express much concern about urban sprawl and the loss of our grade A farm land only to have our school system abandon downtown and take 40 acres out of production and off the tax rolls. Might it be more advisable if a new school is necessary to build it on the site of one of the schools to be closed? The U.S. Green Building Council, which established the LEED or "green" standards, calls for limiting new middle school campuses to not more than 10 acres.

There are other arguments for centrally located schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics has addressed the siting of schools and its impact on children's health. Recent reports on the epidemic of obesity among children have led nationally to a movement to encourage kids to walk to school. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has introduced a "Kids Walk to School" program and there is a "National Walk Our Children to School Day" every October. Recently another Iowa newspaper reported on a study which found a reduction in stress and blood pressure for students who walked to school as opposed to those who rode. The study stated that "the cardiovascular disease process begins in childhood so any way of stopping or slowing that process would provide important health benefits." A centrally located middle school will still require bus transportation but it seems that a school at the proposed site will require that almost all students be transported.

Energy efficiency

One argument in favor of a new school is that it could be energy efficient. But energy efficiency goes beyond just heating and cooling of a building. Green covers all areas of building construction and utilization including the energy required to move the users to the building. The greenest building is the one which already exists. Energy, resources and tax money have already been expended on it. The LEED program, which is the standard for "green buildings," recognizes this by giving points for reuse of existing structures and materials. New buildings have no monopoly on energy efficiency and LEED certification. The University of Northern Iowa is currently rehabilitating a building that dates back to 1912 and is following LEED silver standards.

A great deal of taxpayer money has already gone into the preliminary work on the proposed building with very little taxpayer input. I would encourage the board to open the process to greater public discussion before further commitments are made.

Roger Natte is a longtime Fort Dodge resident and a highly regarded local historian.



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