Davidson: Turn North Grand Building into an arts academy

The North Grand Building in Charles City. (Press photo James Grob.)
The North Grand Building in Charles City. (Press photo James Grob.)
By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

Jacqueline Davidson has an idea.

She’s just not yet sure how to make it happen.

Davidson, director at the Charles City Arts Center, wants to turn the North Grand Building into The Charles City Academy for the Fine Arts — or something close to that.

Jacqueline Davidson, director, Charles City Arts Center
Jacqueline Davidson, director, Charles City Arts Center

“I’m a dreamer, and sometimes they have to reign me in a little bit,” Davidson said. “But by the same token, this art center has come a long way in the two years I’ve been here. It was on the verge of shutting down.”

Davidson has done research on Dominium, a leading developer and owner of affordable housing, and Artspace, which is a non-profit organization that uses the tools of real estate development to create affordable, appropriate places where artists can live and work.

They develop these spaces in ways that support more stable, healthy communities anchored in existing assets.

“If we went ahead and combined an art school there, we have the artists there to help teach it. You’ve got everything there, at a great location,” Davidson said. “I’m not talking about just visual arts, I’m talking about performing arts, culinary arts, writers, music and theater.”

The idea is an ambitious one, to be sure. These types of projects have seen success in some places, but primarily in areas with a much larger population than Charles City, Davidson admits.

She points to a similar project in Red Wing, Minnesota, however, that has been successful, with a population of only about 17,000 people.

“The Anderson Center is owned by the city of Red Wing, and it stabilizes the community. It keeps the economy stable,” she said. “While the other industry there fluctuates, the center stays very feasible. It continually draws people into town.”

From May to October, artists receive grants to come to Red Wing for four weeks at a time and live there as artists-in-residence.

“These are painters, dancers, musicians, songwriters,” said Davidson. “There is a culinary school that feeds the artists. They come in and it all supports itself and each other.”

Another area nearby with a population much smaller than Charles City is Lanesboro, Minnesota, which has successfully rebranded itself as an art community.

“I know Charles City doesn’t have a lot of money to be spending on this,” Davidson said. “I know we would need to try to bring in some financial backing for this to happen, but I think that it’s worth the money. I think that it could bring a lot more money, not just into Charles City, but into Northern Iowa.”

The building at 500 N. Grand Ave. is listed as the “Charles City Junior-Senior High School” on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1932 and first served as the Charles City high school before becoming first a junior high school then a middle school after a new high school was built in the late 1960s.

It stopped serving as general purpose classrooms when the new middle school opened two years ago. The building is still the location for school district administrative offices, Iowa BIG North and the Carrie Lane High School Program. And the auditorium is still used for school and community events.

The National Register is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation, according to the Park Service, which manages the list.

The Charles City Community School District Board of Education approved an agreement in June of 2017, giving local developers the option to purchase the building for $1, to be developed into apartments, with the stipulation that the developers enter into a development agreement for renovations to the building. That purchase option expired last December, however, and the former middle school has remained district property.

Depending upon how and when the district moves forward with renovation plans for the high school, the district has considered using the former middle school to relocate high school students during construction. It’s been suggested that could be more cost-effective than bringing in portable classrooms.

Moving students completely out of the high school for a year would also allow crews to demolish the existing high school’s circle wings all at once, potentially shortening the overall timeframe of the project.

Some in Charles City have suggested tearing down 500 N. Grand and developing the property.

But Stewart Dalton, president of the Charles City Arts Council, believes that since the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it could be eligible for tax incentives for restoration of historic projects and possibly other grants.

“There is funding out there,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how much, but from federal or state or private concerns, there is funding available. There’s a big movement in the United States to preserve our historic buildings.”

Dalton and Davidson said it would be a shame to tear the building down.

“It has a big auditorium that gets a lot of use,” said Dalton. “We need a big auditorium, this city needs one.”

“It also has art rooms, band rooms and meeting rooms,” added Davidson. “It’s got all of that. For that to go away, that would be painful.”

Davidson plans to approach local grant writers soon to see if they can help find some available funding. She also said she intends to communicate with several people and civic organizations in the community in the near future, to find out if anyone else thinks this is something that could be done in Charles City.

“I need to find out what avenues we could take, if there are people who will support this,” she said. “This is way above my expertise. This needs to be handed over to somebody with a lot more chutzpah than what I have.”

Davidson doesn’t expect local government bodies to be able to throw taxpayer money at such a project, but she does hope they can get behind it.

“I know the city doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but would they back us?” Davidson asked. “Would they help us, if not financially, then in other ways?”

Davidson said that she’s hopeful that her idea will, at least, get people in the community talking about how to move forward.

“If we want this town to grow, we’ve got to bring something in here,” she said.

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