Carole Dowe lectured the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors Monday on the importance of preserving the county's historic buildings and keeping the public informed.
The Decorah native, who lives between rural Decorah and British Columbia, Canada, had a half hour on the supervisors' agenda Monday.
Dowe was among citizens who, over the past several months, tried to find a way to preserve the county's "north building." The last of the county poor farm structures in Freeport and constructed in the 1860s, it was recently taken down at a cost of about $64,000.
The north building was attached by an annex to Wellington Place, a county-owned, privately managed care facility that leases its buildings from the county for $1 per year.
Last August, the Wellington Place administrator requested the north building be taken down for various health-related and economic concerns. Because the care facility's sprinkler system was tied to the north building, Wellington Place had been spending about $12,434 annually to heat the unoccupied structure.
After months of debate, the supervisors ultimately decided to have the building taken down.
New Board chair?
Dowe began her presentation by requesting Supervisor Floyd Ashbacher, rather than Board Chairman John Logsdon, chair the meeting, for "sensitivity" reasons.
The Board members said they would not make a motion to have Ashbacher serve in that position. Supervisor Dean Thompson said Logsdon was elected by the Board to serve as chair.
Dowe told the supervisors it's their responsibility to be concerned about any unnecessary demolition of a county-owned building. Dowe said she's talked to members of the community who told her there is a demand for senior housing. She said for about $300,000, the north building could have been converted into eight senior housing units.
Dowe, who said she's been involved in the preservation of a historic building in British Columbia, said she was "muzzled" and told to "cease and desist," in her efforts to save the north building.
"Two or three others in the community were muzzled and told not to say anything inappropriate. Can you understand what I'm saying? That's important. This is a free country," Dowe told the supervisors.
She also complained about the "process" that led to the demolition of the north building.
"I'm concerned about the way things happened. You should have listened more carefully and done your homework," she said.
"Let's not make this mistake again. Can you hear me? I really want you to hear this," she said.
Dowe said the Board did not make an effort to compare the cost of saving the north building and finding alternative use for it to demolition. She said the communities of Oskaloosa and West Union have converted "school-type, brick buildings" for senior housing.
"Has anyone gone to West Union or Oskaloosa to check out what's been done?" she asked.
According to North Fayette School officials, the former middle school building in West Union that had been considered for a housing project has been bulldozed.
Dowe also said the supervisors need to improve communications with the people they represent. She said their meetings could be broadcast through cable television provider Mediacom, but that's only available to Decorah residents, not the county's 11,000 rural residents.
She said she's been in contact with KDEC Radio about the station broadcasting a recording of the supervisors' meetings. No representative of the station was at the meeting to comment.
"There is nothing like hearing each of you speak ... it's very healthy to have that kind of communication," Dowe said.
Supervisors need to use microphones and have their names displayed when they hold public hearings in the courtroom, she suggested.
Dowe urged the Board to be "aware and compassionate" of county citizens who are hearing impaired, or have disabilities.
Thompson said when the Decorah Metronet fiber optic network goes live later this year, there could be an opportunity to stream the Board's meetings over the Internet.
Dowe said there are many people in her rural neighborhood who do not have a computer.
Logsdon said the Winneshiek County Historic Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the north building and afterward, the supervisors were informed the group wasn't interested in trying to save it.
Supervisor Mark Kuhn questioned whether the 6,000-square-foot north building could actually have been renovated for $300,000 - the figure Dowe cited.
"I want to hire these contractors," he said.
Thompson noted the county worked with Northeast Iowa Community Action on converting the former woolen mill in Decorah into housing, and the county also was involved in moving a historic bow-string bridge that had to be replaced on a county road to a park off Highway 9 on the east edge of Decorah. He also provided documentation of numerous projects conducted by the WCHPC.
Thompson said the resolution establishing the WCHPC in 1985 identified a list of the county's historic properties.
But he said resolutions or comprehensive plans for historic preservation don't guarantee the county, "in the best interest of the community and budget can keep them up."
Dowe said the county needs to appoint "people who are willing to do a little homework, and do a little digging."
Logsdon said preservationists need to "get organized," obtain non-profit status and raise funds for their cause.
He said citizens who want to build a trail from Freeport to the Trout Run Trail around Decorah have raised about $100,000 in a few months for the project.
"They need to get out in front of some of this stuff," he said.
Dowe told the supervisors she wants to know what other county buildings may be razed in the future.
"What's next on the hit list ... is the Smith Building up for demolition? I want to know in advance, so it's not the tail wagging the dog," she said.
Thompson said while the Smith Building, the former county hospital that now houses Winneshiek County Public Health and Northeast Iowa Community Action (NEICAC) offices, is being well maintained, "a lot of money goes into it for repairs."
Utilities at the Smith Building total about $25,000 a year, which is another concern, he added.
"Might that cause us to abandon it? I don't think so. There are many options and we're looking for efficiencies," Thompson said. "We want to make sure we continue to use that building and the taxpayer is not burdened."
Dowe asked how much revenue the Smith Building generates.
Winneshiek County Auditor Ben Steines said NEICAC pays monthly rent of $5,672.
"Sixty thousands dollars helps pay the utility bill," she said of the annual amount NEICAC pays in rent.
"Before you do anything with the Smith Building, I want to be involved, so I know everything. I'm asking on public record ... I'd like to make that information available -- income, expenses, roof, all those expenses and please respect the process, John Logsdon," Dowe said.
"Carol Dowe, I will," Logsdon responded.