By KELLY GERLACH

News Editor

Downtown Maquoketa will gain a handful of new upper-story apartments as it pilots a state program intended to revitalize vacant upper-story apartments across the state.

Maquoketa received one of two $500,000 grants from the Iowa Economic Development Authority. 

The money will be used to convert the vacant upper stories at 124 S. Main St. into four or five apartments overlooking the downtown. The lower level of the buildings are occupied by the Maquoketa Art Experience and Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce.

The apartments will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units and will include elevator access to make sure they are accessible to all.

Bob Osterhaus owns the properties being converted into living space. 

“We’re very excited to be included with the grant,” Osterhaus said Wednesday. He thanked key players that helped with the grant application, including the city, Maquoketa Chamber, Jackson County Economic Alliance, 563 Design, and East Central Intergovernmental Association for supporting the initiative.

The entire project will cost an estimated $900,000. The grant will pay for more than half that cost. The Maquoketa City Council agreed to pay $40,000 as a show of support, and Osterhaus will have to pay the remaining costs.

The city’s contribution would come from funds earmarked for downtown facade improvements.

“We hope to bring the project to fruition in a reasonable amount of time,” Osterhaus said, noting that he hadn’t seen the proposed building specifications yet.”

“The project will start very soon once the city receives the official award contract from the state and signs off on it,” said Jackson County Economic Alliance Director Nicolas Hockenberry. “Then the final bid specifications will be completed and then they’re off to the races. Construction will begin at the end of the summer most likely.”

But before the construction can begin, building preparation must be completed.

“Plans are being formulated,” Osterhaus said. “A lot of plans need to be made before crews can start working on the buildings.”

Currently, the upper stories are filled with remnants of past pharmacies, businesses, and tenants in the buildings. The various clutter must be removed.

The program

Maquoketa needs more housing, as shown in both a 2015 needs assessment and a 2018 University of Iowa collaboration to determine ways to attract young people to the county.

“Over the past few years, Maquoketa has been acutely aware of the struggles of increasing workforce housing opportunities, and in particular, addressing a quality rental shortage,” Hockenberry said. “The partnership between the city, a property owner, and the state is a great example of how public-private cooperation can be leveraged to address a community need.”

The $500,000 grant from the Upper Story Pilot Program will turn vacant space into much-needed housing, Hockenberry said. The Iowa Economic Development Authority offer the program, which is funded with federal Community Development Block Grant dollars. 

Under terms of the program, the money must be used to create upper-story housing in the downtown. The space must have been unoccupied for at least three years.

At least four of the rental units must be occupied by people whose income is at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income level, which was $46,173 from 2013-17, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That rule is in place for the first five years after the project’s completion, according to David Heiar of JCEA, which helped to prepare the grant application.

Why the location?

Hockenberry said only two downtown buildings were large enough to be single-owner projects, which is what JCEA sought. One of those two properties did not meet the program’s vacancy requirement.

That left Osterhaus’ four buildings on the 100 block of South Main Street. Those buildings house the MAE and Chamber. The buildings are known as the Centennial, Hinckley, and Green Mill buildings. They were built between about 1876 and 1890.

Osterhaus said the upper-story space, which covers about 10,000 square feet, has been used only as storage in the 40-plus years he’s owned it. A dancehall filled the Centennial building’s upper level, and some of the original purple printed wallpaper is still on the walls. The buildings are filled with papers, dust, empty boxes, water damage and other remnants of days gone by.

Mayor Don Schwenker said he was pleased with the grant award.

“This grant from the state will continue the transformation of Maquoketa’s downtown and be an important strategy in addressing our workforce housing needs,” Schwenker said.