Small Iowa city agrees to plan for huge federal ghost town
KNOXVILLE, IA – After watching for more than a decade as a once busy Veterans Affairs campus deteriorated into a sprawling ghost town of crumbling brick buildings, leaders of a small Iowa city announced plans Wednesday to finally take control of the property and likely demolish most of the structures.
City and county officials signed documents taking ownership of the 153-acre property. For decades, it operated as its own city with a power plant, fire station, water tower, green houses, laundry, chapel and even an old bowling alley fashioned from a Quonset hut.
That abruptly changed in 2009 when federal officials merged operations with a VA facility 40 miles away in Des Moines, leaving 39 buildings behind that quickly deteriorated amid Iowa's hot, humid summers and bone-chilling winters.
Now that the federal government has finally transferred control of the land to Knoxville and Marion County, most if not all of those buildings will be removed in the coming years and be replaced with new housing.
Marion County Supervisor Mark Raymie said that after trying for years to find another use for the campus and then watching it deteriorate, he and most in the community won't mourn the loss of the buildings, many of them a century old.
“There is sadness no one did anything when the federal government left,” Raymie said. “Now you have trees growing in some of the buildings.”
When the Veterans Affairs campus closed, it was a huge blow to Knoxville, a city of 7,000 that like many small Midwest communities has seen its population dwindle. At its height, the campus on the edge of town employed more than 1,000 people who cared for 1,600 patients.
Under a plan agreed to by officials, the county will take responsibility for knocking down buildings and reshaping the property with a priority on new housing. Officials said one reason Knoxville's population has declined is because there is so little new, affordable housing.
Raymie estimated the cost to the county at $15 million over 20 years.
Mayor Brian Hatch announced the transfer of the property on the stage of Knoxville's restored movie theater in the city's town square. Officials plan to retain patriotic street names, such as Liberty Lane and Constitution Avenue, and install a display commemorating the history of the veterans center.
Hatch expressed relief about finally taking control of the property from the Veterans Affairs, which oversees more than 6,000 buildings and in 2017 announced plans to clear a backlog of about 430 vacant structures scattered around the country. The Knoxville center was especially challenging given the campus' size and location in a community so small and with so few resources.
“It's been a long and tiring road," Hatch said.
As part of the deal, the State Historic Preservation Office required that two of the oldest structures — an administration building and hospital — must be marketed for 60 days. If no one expresses interest, those buildings like the others can be removed if desired by local officials.
Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said the removal of the historic structures reflects the simple reality that no one could figure out a new use for the buildings.
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