Questions bounced around every surface of my brain while I sat in on a presentation months ago about the attempt to turn the former Ashford University campus into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics facility.
Part of the reason why I was so inquisitive about the process is because I’m a journalist by trade. In this scenario, though, my main question kept circling around one common theme — how was this possible?
It was a well-known fact that Clinton Catalyst, the Limited Liability Company that purchased the shuttered campus and its other properties, was attempting to make the facility into a STEM academy. Studies were commissioned, legislators were phoned and even the governor got a first-hand glimpse of the former campus.
Through it all, we were told that this could be a national beacon for STEM learning, and that somehow, it was going to work.
As I listened to the pitch on that day months ago, I couldn’t wrap my head around how that was possible. It was if we were climbing a stairwell to this majestic destination, but we were on step two of 4,000.
Now, that project is just a footnote on the long and winding road of how we came to the Clinton City Council’s decision Tuesday to extend economic development grants to Clinton Catalyst for the new planned usage of the former campus — a place where international students will be housed and cared for while attending Clinton High School.
Normally when I hear about the city handing over money to another private group to reduce risk, I get skeptical. And while there are some missing pieces still not ironed out, this is a deal necessary from the city’s perspective.
What’s the most important item on the city’s list of must-haves? The list is long, but I would argue the former Ashford University campus is at the top of the list. When Ashford ceased operations at the main campus, it left a hole in this community through more than just the educational avenue. It was felt in retail, housing, entertainment and more.
Bringing that back to life, albeit in a different form, is necessary for Clinton’s future. When the campus became empty, the fear permeating through the community centered on how it could become another one of the empty buildings dotting our landscape.
Or, and maybe worse, someone would buy it, sell the items left individually and gut it, leaving a shell of a campus that would be unmarketable.
Clinton got lucky when Clinton Catalyst, three people who didn’t know anything about Clinton, Iowa, months before the purchase, took a leap of faith and bought it. And while other strangers would have left long ago, trying to make as much money as they could, Clinton Catalyst hasn’t left, even when things weren’t happening at the speed in which they anticipated when they purchased it in December 2015.
Two years later, officials are expecting the campus to be brought back to life in the fall, and the city is aiding in that development. The city this week agreed to up to $750,150 total in economic grants distributed for 15 consecutive years to Clinton Catalyst as an agreement to ensure development.
In 2019, the city will award $60,000 if the campus has 20 full-time employees and at least 20 students on site. The grant awards will shrink each year, while the city demands more bang for its buck, eventually seeking 90 full-time employees by 2033, with 315 students.It will be a gradual increase of students and employees, according to the agreement, with the grant award being contingent on at least 115 students by 2023, and at least 215 students by 2028.
Developing property, bringing economic activity and cultural diversity oftentimes in today’s society requires a partnership between developers, and municipal and state entities. In this case, the city cannot pass up the opportunity to see the former Ashford and Mount St. Clare campus from being revitalized.
The redevelopment of that property is essential, so it’s in the best interest of taxpayers to ensure that it gets attention, even through city incentives.
There are still several questions that I’m hoping get answered. This proposal is only enforceable when the property is utilized by international students looking to get a diploma from Clinton High School. That means progress is attainable in the coming months and that should help spur more economic activity and bring in a brighter 2018.
Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ScottLevineCH on Twitter.