published online: 5/20/2012
Co-owners of construction company turning old high school into senior apartments.
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By BOB HANSEN
for The Hawk Eye
STOCKPORT – It is a quiet afternoon in the Van Buren County village of Stockport. Then again, most afternoons in Stockport are quiet. The stores along Main Street are shuttered, and only a large, well-fed cat watches an occasional car pass by as the town’s single stop sign dances in the warm May breeze. But, a few blocks from the moribund business district, there is a flurry of activity where Kelly and Kirby Cass are reaffirming their faith in the future of their hometown.
The twin Cass brothers are betting their savings and their hard work that the town’s shuttered high school can be reconfigured into a profitable apartment complex for seniors wishing to remain in familiar surroundings, but who are unwilling or unable to assume the demands of living on their own.
It is a familiar complaint that Iowa’s best and brightest are fleeing the small towns for lives and careers in the state’s few big cities, or decamping to other parts of the country. The Casses seem likely candidates for this migration, for their building skills, hard work ethic and degrees in construction management from Western Illinois University are the vehicles providing them with a job mobility many would envy.
But following their college graduation in 1995, they evaluated their options and lifestyle preferences and decided small town Iowa still could be attractive to entrepreneurs and provide the life quality they wished their young families to experience. That decision to return also served the brother’s wish to work together.
“We grew up together and played together and thought it would be great if we could work together. I think that with twins there is sometimes a special bond that allows us to think about things in the same way,” Kelly said.
“We had thought about it often, and we decided that we didn’t want to work for anyone else,” Kirby explained. “Then, we figured that our best bet to succeed would be in a community where everybody knew us and what we could do, so it was back to Stockport.”
That choice was made easier because Kelly’s wife, Tiffany, is from Iowa City but with family in the Stockport area, while Kirby’s wife is from nearby Keosauqua. But, there still were concerns the young families would be moving into a community where the demographics skewed toward the retirement age.
“Initially, that had to be a concern, but if you come here in the summer and see all the young couples and their kids on the softball fields behind the old school, then you would see that we are not the only ones choosing to live in Stockport and the area,” Kirby said.
The brothers honed their construction skills and polished their independent spirits working for their father, and following graduation from college and their return to Stockport, they built their first house and offered it up for sale.
“It was a ‘spec house,’ and we thought that building homes would be a good livelihood.” Kelly remembered. “It still came as a surprise that just nine days after we had broke ground for the house that we had it sold. It seemed like we had made a good decision about coming back.”
The Casses called their new construction business Twin Home Builders, but the pace of new home building in the Stockport area slowed during the economic downturn of 2008. So the two scrambled for home remodeling jobs. Van Buren County also was experiencing a slowdown, and the decision was reluctantly made that Stockport’s high school would be shuttered.
The building’s contents were offered up at a public auction and Kirby and Kelly were among the many who were on hand, kicking the old desks and remembering happier times at the school. It was at that time they began to consider if there still was a future in the old school because the building’s bones were good, with most of the structure being less than 10 years old. Plus, the school board seemed anxious to wash its hands of the white elephant of an unneeded school.
“We had so many good memories of the building,” Kelly said, “and we could remember playing ball in the gym and school lunches in the cafeteria. It was such an important part of the town that we could not imagine Stockport with this building shut down.”
Twin Home Builders approached the school board, explained that they wished to rescue the building and make it into an apartment complex for seniors. The response was gratifying, and in 2011, Kelly and Kirby found themselves owning a 35,000-square foot building in a town that appeared to be locked in the 1950s.
The school’s cafeteria has been leased out and now is the town’s only cafe, while the 10,000-square-foot gymnasium is ready for weddings, family gatherings and perhaps a pick-up game of basketball. The new owners report the community has been very supportive of their effort and happy to see the old school reused. Kirby and Kelly are doing all the construction work needed to convert the old classrooms into bright and welcoming apartments ranging fro 800 to 1,200 square feet. And, if all goes well, the facility should open in mid-summer.
“We call the project Heritage Estates, and we look at it as kind of a personal gateway for us,” Kirby said as he walked the sunlit halls of the old school. “Managing this building means we will not always be out looking for new construction projects, and it will give us more time to spend with our families. And we have the satisfaction of giving something back to the town that has meant so much to us.”
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