Preservation group searching for ways to reuse old state prison

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FT. MADISON, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Two years ago this summer, hundreds of the most hardened prisoners in Iowa made the move to a brand new correctional center in Ft. Madison.

Now historic preservationists have a mission. Find a new use for what was abandoned by the state. It’s now called the Historic Iowa State Penitentiary—a site one state group calls the most endangered historic place in all of Iowa.

The nonprofit group called Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, Inc. is trying to answer the question of what can the community do to both preserve and reuse this part of history that actually pre-dates Iowa as a state.

Last Sunday, thousands of visitors took a trip behind the walls of this now “ghost prison.” It was a one-time event through the Iowa Department of Corrections with retired and current correctional officers serving as guides.

Rebecca Bowker, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections at Ft. Madison, says there’s a lot more to it than just turning over control to a nonprofit group, throwing open the doors and selling tour tickets to see the old prison.

“We’d love to see something move forward. But it’s a complicated issue and a lot of things are in play there,” Bowker said.

Mark Fullenkamp, a vice president of the historic group looking to reuse the prison, agreed it isn’t something that will happen quickly even though the prison closed nearly two years ago.

“Working in the free market you want things done fast. You’ve got to be more patient in this,” he said.

Not surprisingly, money is probably the biggest hold up.

It costs the state of Iowa about $1,000 a day to mothball the old prison located near the Mississippi River in Ft. Madison. That pays for ongoing security and keeping the lights on.

The state has given the city an indication it would turn the historic site over to either the city or a nonprofit group for a promise of preservation.

But Dave Varley, Ft. Madison city manager, said the city would want an environmental study done first to discover any hidden hazards or costs. That’s a $100,000-$150,000 expense and there’s no money to pay for that work yet.

“Most citizens would like to see something done. They feel more could be done than just have it sit there. But at the same time they don’t want to see a lot of tax money just spent on something that’s not very successful,” Varley said.

Fullenkamp says there would be interest in paid tours but probably not enough to support the upkeep of the old prison.

He could see a conversion of some of the old grounds and facilities to recreational use by residents. Another idea is to use no longer needed buildings as incubator space for new businesses while leaving the historic portion for tours. There could even be uses no one’s thought of yet.

“That’s the key—sustainability. How do you get it to pay for itself? It won’t be what you see today, we’ll have to demolish parts, build parts. And make it more accessible for the public,” Fullenkamp said.

That will take time and money but Fullenkamp says the walls have stood since the middle of the 1800s, so there is time.