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State Planning Review of Former Fort Madison Prison

Jason Parrott
The review will identify environmental needs and historic structuures for potential developers

The state of Iowa might provide a boost to the efforts of Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, which is the non-profit organization trying to find a new use for the former maximum security prison in Fort Madison. The city's tourism director, Jean Peiton, said a boost is exactly what is needed.

“As of right now, the sole donor towards trying to get something done with the prison continues to be the city of Fort Madison,” said Peiton. “Everybody is just kind of sitting back and saying, ‘What are they going to do?’ It’s a monumental undertaking and a huge task.”

Peiton said what the state is offering to do is conduct a comprehensive review of the property.

“What the building conditions are, an environmental study for chemicals or anything that would have to be cleaned up, considering it is 176-years-old, a historical study to determine the history and what should really be preserved as it actually stands now and what could be developed for other things,” said Peiton. “[The review would] also look into incentives, tax write-offs, and initiatives from the state for developers to possibly look at the prison for redevelopment.”

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
Inside one of the cell houses at the former ISP

Peiton said it's critical to get this information in the hands of developers.

“There are a lot of developers [who] seem really interested, but they also need to know what is in it for them,” said Peiton. “What they can use it for, what restraints they have, what can be changed, what can’t be changed. There are a lot of structures [within the stone walls] that are on the National Register of Historic Places so that kind of creates what we really can turn it into and what we can’t.”

Peiton said there is no timeline for when the review will begin or when the results would be available. She said the state has told the local non-profit it hopes to find a new owner for the property as soon as possible so it can avoid the costs associated with upkeep.

“They have a code that protects any historic structure owned by the state from being allowed to deteriorate,” said Peiton. “Basically what it says is when they own, or are in charge of [a historic structure], they have to at least maintain or attempt to keep the property from diminishing in value. [The state is] hoping to get this taken care of because it cost a lot of money to heat it to a level to keep the pipes in the prison from freezing [last winter].”

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
The non-profit believes more interest will develop as a more concrete plan for the prison comes to light

  Meanwhile, Peiton said the non-profit thought it discovered a unique way to raise money, but was told it would not work out. She said a paid tour of the prison was scheduled for early June, but the state said the group could not charge money to tour a state-owned facility.

Peiton said the tour will go on as planned, free of charge, while no more will be scheduled.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.