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Some Lawmakers Unsure on $80 Million Historical Building Renovation

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DES MOINES, Iowa - An $80 million proposal to completely redesign the State Historical Building of Iowa is described as "critical" to the museum's future by proponents, but some lawmakers are on the fence.

"[Some of my colleagues] get concerned with the plan to tear half of the building down and then redevelop a block of the building," said State Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines). "Which would be new development. And people are saying, 'Well you know, we've got green space. Do we really need more green space?'"

Sen. McCoy chairs the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, and will play a large role in whether or not the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs gets the money it's requesting.

The DCA has proposed a $65 million request from the state's Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund (RIIF) - money generated from taxes on gambling, totaling about $70 million a year. The $65 million would be allocated to the DCA over five years, and would be bolstered by an additional $15 million the department would privately raise to fund an $80 million renovation project. The plans include demolishing about half the building - reducing it from 234,000 square feet to 155,000 square feet - and replacing it with green space. The other half of the building would be renovated.

"We have brought forth the most cost-effective and sustainable solution," said Mary Cownie, Director of the DCA. "It will address all our infrastructure issues. It will allow us to better preserve all of our collections. Also better function as a museum and provide greater access to Iowa's history. So the $65 million is absolutely critical because it is a complete solution and not a short-term band-aid."

Cownie argues this is the most cost-effective plan on the table; a plan to renovate the entire building would have cost $83 million, and demolishing the entire building to replace it with something completely new would cost $118 million. Her department's proposal has at least one critical supporter - Governor Tery Branstad recommended the $65 million requested for the project in his budget.

Cownie says there is $40 million in repairs needed for areas like skylights, plumbing, and electrical/mechanical systems. But she says this proposal is about more than just placing band-aids on leaks and cracks; Cownie argues doubling down on the $40 million already needed to refresh the building's look and allow it to serve new purposes is the best route to take, with the other half of the project's cost going toward a number of efforts.

Those efforts include:

  • The renovated building will serve as a welcome center to the Capitol
  • Digitizing the state's archives, as well as improving public access to them
  • Offering a more frequent rotation of exhibits in museum space
  • Creating more kid-friendly museums
  • Conducting the museum's first full assessment of its entire collection in its 157-year history
  • Creating "visible storage" so patrons can tour larger items in storage in the museum's basement

But Sen. McCoy says convincing his colleagues to get on board with the proposal could be difficult. The Wallace Building has waited more than a decade for renovations, and among other issues, has begun to accumulate lead dust. Sen. McCoy says estimates for the cost of a renovation to the Wallace Building would be about $57 million. Because of this, he thinks fixing the most critical issues at the State Historical Building - like a leaky roof and skylights, as well as an outdated HVAC system - could be sufficient, and keep the cost under $20 million.

"The key to solving some of the problems over at the Historical Building is first of all, you've got to get the building sealed. So you've got to put a new roof on, and get rid of the skylights that are leaking," he said. "I could perhaps go along with a plan to rehabilitate the Historical Building, that was much more extensive than a roof and HVAC, and new display cases and new displays for bringing the artifacts up. But what I have to get done, is I have to get the Wallace Building addressed. Because the Wallace Building has been on the list of buildings that need to be addressed for quite some time."

Sen. McCoy says he plans to present a compromise to his colleagues Monday: combine the renovation projects at the State Historical Building and the Wallace Building, add in another $5 million project to relocate the car fleet on the Capitol's east side to the other side of East 14th Street (another item on the state's renovation to-do list), and fund it all through state bonds that could be paid off in about 20 years.

"Before we put a bunch of money into a museum, what I said is, we should look at putting both of those projects together. And bonding for the amount of money it would take to update the building and bring up the renovation of the Historical Building," he said. "I've asked my colleagues, 'If we could do all of that in one package, would you be interested?' And everybody has said, 'Yeah we'd be very open to that idea.'"

Cownie says expanding the project to include other renovations is something she's open to.

"What is great about this process is that it's a discussion of ideas and if Senator McCoy has another option, where he can look at a - frankly put forth a bigger idea that's going to be a larger solve to the Capitol Gateway - there are a lot of issues, a lot of deferred maintenance that exists on our Capitol Complex," she said.

Budget talks are ongoing at the Capitol, and final details on what funding - if any - is allocated, could be unknown through April.

WATCH: STATE HISTORICAL BUILDING PLANS $80 MILLION MAKE-OVER