Warden project sees delays and signs of progress

An ambitious plan to transform a section of downtown Fort Dodge by renovating the long vacant Warden Plaza, creating a new cultural and recreation center and building a parking garage to link the two, has seemingly been stalled for more than two years.

But city leaders have recently seen some signs of progress, including a new commitment by the owner of the Warden Plaza to spend $315,000 on design work for the edifice at 908 First Ave. S.

During a City Council workshop Monday evening, Matt Brown, president of the Formation Group, a Des Moines firm hired by the council to serve as the project manager, recounted the delays that have plagued the project since 2016.

”We also have some success stories to talk about,” he said.

He said the parking garage called an intermodal hub could be the first component of the project to advance if the city is awarded a $5.9 million federal grant this summer.

Mayor Matt Bemrich said the city has ”a great team that is wrangling the project to get it under control.”

But Councilman Terry Moehnke gave voice to the frustration that some in Fort Dodge have with the project.

”My concern, and it’s not just my concern, it’s the community’s concern, is that we’re getting tired of this project just sitting there and nothing getting done,” he said.

Moehnke said the owner of the Warden Plaza, KDG LLC, of Columbia, Missouri, was given the building by the city in December 2016.

”It seems to me like the city and the Formation Group are doing the heavy lifting and KDG is sitting back and taking advantage of it,” he said. ”They have not spent a penny of their own money on it.”

When it acquired the building, KDG LLC announced plans to create up to 120 apartments on the upper floors of the Warden Plaza, while developing retail space on the first two floors. The cost of the project has been estimated at $35 million.

Key to the project is demolishing the Wahkonsa Annex, which is the light-colored brick building attached to the east side of the Warden Plaza. To ensure that the project remains eligible for historic preservation tax credits, which are key to its financing, the developer had to convince the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service that the two structures are separate buildings.

Brown said that process caused a significant delay, but in February those agencies acknowledged that the two buildings are separate.

Another delay recently occurred when the Iowa Economic Development Authority announced it would only award historic preservation tax credits for large projects once this year. Brown said KDG LLC was preparing to submit their application this fall, but the state agency only considered applications this spring. He said that was ”completely unexpected and unforeseen.”

As a result, KDG’s application won’t be considered until the spring of 2020.

On the positive side, Brown reported that KDG LLC is preparing to spend $315,000 on design work.

”They plan to spend money and fortunately they didn’t ask for money this time,” he said.

Brown said applications for two big federal grants have been filed. One application to the Environmental Protection Agency seeks $500,000 to help pay for demolishing the Wahkonsa Annex. The other application, to the Department of Transportation, seeks $5.8 million for building the intermodal hub. The city’s attempt to secure a $7.63 million federal grant for that purpose was unsuccessful last year.

Brown also reported that fundraising for the proposed cultural and recreation center should begin next month.

That facility, to be built near First Avenue South and 12th Street would replace the recreation center at First Avenue South and 15th Street. It’s estimated to cost $33 million.