Unique partnership for home construction projects produces multiple benefits for school district and Waukon community

Waukon High School construction class students work under the experienced eye of instructor Jed Hemann on construction of a new home located in the West Side Development in Waukon. Once the home is completed, it will be sold, with proceeds being used first to pay any expenses associated with building the home and to pay for the lot. Any remaining funds will be given to the school and would be used for funding in the Allamakee Community School District's Career and Technical Education curriculum. Submitted photo.

by Brianne Eilers

The Allamakee Community School District (ACSD), the City of Waukon, and Waukon Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) have entered into a unique partnership that will provide educational opportunities for students while also benefiting the community. These three entities, along with numerous other strategic partners, will all be a part of the Waukon High School (WHS) construction class home building project.
For several years now, the WHS construction class, under the instruction of Jed Hemann, has been looking for a rigorous and real-life (relevant) laboratory setting to build homes in Waukon. A large part of that project hinges on the availability of a lot to build on. With the new multi-faceted arrangement, the school will have five lots to build on located on the east side of the new West Side Development on the west edge of Waukon. This ensures that the school district will not have to worry about finding a building lot for the next few years, as the project is set to span that same timeframe.
The land on which the West Side Development is located is currently owned by the City of Waukon. The City has given control of those five lots to WEDC for the purpose of building five new, moderately-priced homes on those lots. Loren Beneke, Mayor of Waukon, noted that when the City had purchased the property city officials were not entirely sure what direction the development of that property would take. When an idea was presented that the high school construction class could build homes on some of the lots in the West Side Development, members of the Waukon City Council were all very positive in their response to the idea.
“The City was very excited,” Beneke said, adding that the City was glad to be able to be in a position to offer constructive help, as well as showing support for the school. The City will provide for the infrastructure, including the street, water and sewer systems, in the development.
When the house is sold, the City will be reimbursed for the sale price of the lot. In each subsequent year, the City will be paid for the lot as the completed homes are sold, enabling the City to recoup about half the cost of infrastructure improvements to the development. The other half of those costs will be recovered as the western half of the property is sold.
Joe Cunningham, member of the WEDC Board of Directors, as well as a former city councilman, noted that this development and partnership allows for some unique opportunities for the City of Waukon to use funding in a way that it might not necessarily be able to use it otherwise. The area where the West Side Development is located has been considered a “blighted” area, so the City will be able to use TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds to provide the infrastructure needed to make the development desirable and attractive to prospective buyers.
Cunningham also noted that in addition to the five lots that the school will be building homes on over the next five years, there are also three larger lots located in the west half of the development that are slated for the construction of multi-family homes, and those projects will most likely be done by other independent builders.
WEDC is taking the role of the financier of this project by purchasing materials and paying subcontractors, and in essence will act as the owner of the lot and house until it is sold, as well as acting as the general contractor, a role previously filled by Hemann when his construction classes were building their previous homes. WEDC is a non-profit organization, so after the home is sold, the organization will not be making any money from this arrangement, but that won’t stop the group from being part of the construction of a quality home.
“As the ‘owner’ of the project, we will require things to be done right,” Cunningham said. The students' work is subject to inspections, as any contractor would be, and checkpoints (timelines) are put into place to keep students on task. “It’s a good way for students to understand accountability, and the experience is real-life and real-world.” The homes built by the classes are required to meet City and State building codes.
The location in itself is a huge advantage for the high school students, as it is within walking distance of the school. WHS Principal Dan Diercks explained that in addition to saving time that would have been spent transporting students to and from the jobsite, the district will be able to save on travel expenses as well. “On past projects, we were transporting students back and forth to the jobsite three times a day,” Diercks noted.
As for prospective buyers, the location is close to the schools and Wellness  Center, which all involved feel is a good selling point. Hemann and his classes have previously built four homes in various areas of Waukon. This year, the high school has developed a schedule that its feels will maximize the efficiency of the time students spend on the project by being able to set aside a block of time for the project, which encompasses four periods of high school class time. Students may choose to take two, three or all four periods of this elective class during their school day.
Students earn high school credit, in addition to college credit through Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC). “The school district pays for this college credit, and that is a huge advantage for the students earning both high school and college credits,” Diercks said. In the future, the plan is to expand this partnership with NICC so that students can earn additional credits for a Building Trades Associate of Arts certificate along with their high school diploma.
The students will be the carpenters of this project, but will also have exposure to other aspects of the construction process, such as electrical work or concrete, through the help of material suppliers, sub-contractors, utility companies and others who have become strategic partners of the project through donations and/or service. Many of the strategic partners have also been gracious enough to defer payment for these services until after the finished home is sold.
ACSD Superintendent Dave Herold expressed the fact that the high school students being able to take part in construction of a home from essentially a bare lot is unique in itself, as one may see many community colleges or vocational schools taking on projects like this, but not very many high schools have done a project of this magnitude.
“We have also heard that local businesses and contractors can have a hard time finding suitable apprentices and trainees, and we are seeing this type of project help fill that need,” Herold said. He noted that this year, six previous construction class students have been working for area businesses that all have some relationship to the construction process. Diercks estimated that since the high school has started doing these types of projects, a dozen students have been able to find work locally, in some aspect of building.
Herold and Diercks are also hoping that as this project progresses, other classes in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) departments will be able to be included as well, such as the horticulture class doing the landscaping and the business class to help market the home.  There could also be some opportunities for working with other school districts on this project.
Herold and Diercks are hoping that in talking with other school districts in the area, ACSD might be able to provide educational opportunities for other schools to bring their classes to the WHS project, to work on the homes as well. “It’s intimidating for students to come to another school for something like this,” Herold admitted, “but I think once we get a school to take a look at this program and they see what an opportunity it is, we’ll see  more schools interested.” ACSD is beginning to set up visits with other schools to come and look at what the construction class is doing this school year. In the event that other districts participate in the project, they would still have to meet the standards set.
ACSD is extremely appreciative of the City of Waukon and WEDC’s willingness to work with the school for this project. “We also can’t emphasize enough our appreciation to all of our strategic partners,” noted Herold. Diercks added that Jed Hemann has been a huge asset to these projects, as he comes from a family with a construction background.  “He has done a huge amount of unseen work on past projects, making phone calls, working with sub-contractors, getting building permits, etc.," Diercks said. "He was acting as the general contractor, but that role will now shift to WEDC.”
As of now, the construction class has been working on the home for a few weeks. Diercks anticipates that sometime in late winter they can begin showing the house.  “Selling the home is critical to the process,” he noted. When the home is sold, any funds that are left over after all the contractors and strategic partners have been paid will go to the school and be tagged for the district's vocational programs. Right now, the school is using funds received from the Perkins Federal Grant to help purchase needed equipment for construction of the house, but Diercks noted that there are “a lot of strings attached.” The school is looking to buy a skid loader this year with those funds. Funds received from the sale of the home would be able to go back into the school to fund other areas of CTE, like Ag classes, other industrial technology classes, business classes and health occupations classes.
Funds could also be used towards the repair and maintenance of equipment, which can really add up with a project this size, or the purchase of new equipment, such as a generator, so that students can be working on a site even if electrical service isn’t hooked up. “It’s an expensive curriculum for the school, and this is an innovative way to fund that area,” Herold noted.