The Park Inn project needs cash, courage

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Note: Printed with Permission from The Globe-Gazette, article by John Skipper.
MASON CITY - A board member of Alliant Energy told city officials Friday it will take a lot of money and local political courage to accomplish the restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright properties in downtown Mason City.
But Tom Aller of Cedar Rapids said Alliant was interested in the project only if it included both the Park Inn and the old City National Bank buildings - and that's where the local dollars and local courage come into play.
"We can do the Park Inn. What we can't do is integrate the bank into the project and make any sense of the numbers. But we will only do the project if it includes the bank. We want to do a world-class project or not do it at all," he said.
Aller was one of the speakers at an Economic Development Summit attended by Mayor Bill Schickel; City Administrator Chuck Hammen; Community Development Director Tarek Moneir; State Reps. Gary Blodgett and Dennis May; Ruth Domack, president of Heartland Properties, Madison, Wis.; John Helbling, Alliant's economic development director from Cedar Rapids; and every City Council member except Max Weaver.
Other speakers included Dan Hunter, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and Dean Baumgardner of Heartland Properties. Heartland is a subsidiary of Alliant that develops community improvement projects in cities served by Alliant.
"It's going to take a pile of money," said Aller. "This will take political courage on the part of the local city council to say this is important for the next four, five or six generations. There will be those who will say `You can't fix the streets. What are you doing spending money on this?' You've probably already heard that."
The five council members in attendance all said they support the project. Wolover agreed it made sense to include both the hotel and the bank. Lee said the council might have to rearrange some of its priorities and hold off on funding other projects to accomplish the restoration.
Hunter stressed the importance of the project. "What we have in these two projects is a work of art," he said. "What does it mean to have a work of art in the community? Art is how you see the world in a way that no one else sees it. That's vision - a vision you want to project to a larger audience."
Hunter spoke of the tourist appeal that Frank Lloyd Wright properties have. "In Iowa, we don't have mountains and we don't have oceans and we don't have the money to bring them here. People will travel for culture," he said.
Baumgardner also emphasized the tourism that will be generated by the restored buildings. "Over one million people visit Wright buildings every year," he said. "These will require extraordinary effort to restore and preserve. The exterior of the Park Inn is OK but it is in poor structural condition. The upper rooms are unusable and extensive remodeling will be needed downstairs. (The Chamber of Commerce now occupies the building at 15 W. State St.)
"The bank is structurally sound but has been drastically altered internally," said Baumgardner. (Moorman Clothiers and the Michael McCoy accounting firm occupy the building at the corner of the mall plaza and West State Street. The building is owned by McCoy.)
The Park Inn building is owned by Les Nelson. The paperwork is still being completed in which Nelson will sell the property to the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy which will then sell it to Heartland.
Moneir, who arranged the summit, said the challenges for the city are the restoration itself; the parking requirements; and funding, both public and private, for the project. He said a minimum of 10 parking places will be needed in the area behind the building to the southwest.
He said funding will come from a variety of sources, including state and federal grants as well as local dollars.
"We don't know what the total dollar figure will be," said Moneir. "Originally, it was estimated that it would cost $1.1 to $1.7 million for the hotel alone - and that was before some of the internal problems were discovered."
The project received a $200,000 state grant earlier this year. Blodgett said that grant was a result of a combination of circumstances that all came together. "I want to stress the importance of having a complete program in mind when you apply for more state funds. These projects are highly competitive and it is extremely important to have a well organized plan," he said.

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