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Council at the end of their rope with stalled Wilson school renovations

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Shawn Foutch is on thin ice with the Cherokee City Council. 

But the council doesn’t exactly know what to do with him. 

“I am so over him, honestly,” said Councilperson Amy Loughlin at a meeting on Tuesday.

Foutch, co-owner of JMAE, LLC based in Johnston, purchased the property from the City of Cherokee nearly five years ago to transform the former school into an apartment complex. Foutch has completed similar projects throughout the state, including the South School in Storm Lake, which opened last year. But since taking on the Wilson School project, Covid, delayed funding and other scheduling issues have significantly stalled renovations. At a meeting on Tuesday, the council conveyed alarm. Loughlin wondered whether Foutch would ever finish. 

“I really think this is never going to get done,” said Loughlin. “I was really hoping it would.”

Foutch intends to press on. 

“The plan is to go ahead as we discussed,” Foutch said. 

Foutch said he hasn’t met with the council members who believe that he won’t finish the project in a reasonable timeframe. No plans for a meeting are set at this time. He said he wants to finish the project by next summer, but he said that was a goal, not a guarantee. 

Loughlin and other council members want to summon Foutch to explain himself. “We need to have a detailed discussion with him because everybody’s frustrated,” said Councilperson John Nitz. 

After meeting with Foutch this week, the city will make a final decision of whether or not to make him raze the building and scrap the project. It’s unclear what legal remedies are at the council’s disposal to compel Foutch to improve the building or demolish it. 

Foutch’s original development agreement was not made immediately available by city hall or City Attorney Justin Vondrak, who declined comment on how the council could compel Foutch to bend to its aims.  

“I know nothing about that,” Vondrak said when asked about the development agreement between Foutch and the city. 

Councilman Pingel said that according to Foutch’s initial contract with the city, he either has to complete the proposed 32-apartment complex or demolish the building and refurbish it into a usable lot. He didn’t indicate an overall project deadline that was agreed to with the city. 

In June, Foutch shared an updated plan for renovations with the city council. He aimed to complete the project by next summer. 

Over the past year, Foutch said his crews have started framing new interior walls with steel studs. He also began stripping and repainting old rusted steel. Foutch told the Chronicle Times last month that the building was too hazardous to enter without protective gear. 

Foutch installed a new subfloor inside the building but said he has not yet secured grant money to repair the derelict roof. He estimated it will cost $150,000 to repair and said he expected to hear back about a potential grant in September. His recent construction schedule did not specify any plans for roof rehabilitation, but he told the Chronicle Times Wednesday that he intended to install a membrane roof on the building by the end of the summer or early fall. Foutch also said he planned to cover all the skylights by the end of the month. The membrane roof would permanently seal the ceiling and prevent any further leakage. 

“The roof ought to be one of the first things done,” said Pingel. 

The old school house’s dilapidated roof endured more damage during last month’s torrential rains. Loughlin said she worried about the amount of mold contaminating the building’s interior. But Foutch said the rains and potential mold were not a concern to him in an interview Wednesday morning. 

“I don’t think the rain harmed the roof at all,” Foutch said. 

Cherokee resident Mike Bundt attended Tuesday’s council meeting and interrupted the discussion from the audience. 

“If he’s that incompetent that he didn’t put up a roof first, what the hell are we dealing with him for?” Bundt asked. “That’s stupidity.”

Loughlin said she would feel more confident continuing the renovations if Foutch restores the roof this month. But with less than three weeks to do so, Loughlin said, “I just don’t think it’s very feasible.”

Foutch said he would move forward with the sidewalk repair unless otherwise directed by the city. Wednesday morning, he said he had no set plans to meet with anyone from the city council. Foutch said he wanted to sit down with someone on staff to discuss any decisions the council has made about the project’s status. 

Wilson School, Shawn Foutch, Cherokee City Council

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