Ecology lab and storage building to be sold

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Amelia Schafer

The prairie lot has been used by the Environment Science and Biology departments as an outdoor ecology lab since 2017.

by Amelia Schafer, Editor-in-Chief

As the fall semester began, several students and faculty members were caught off guard when the prairie lab site and the old church at 1200 W Iowa Ave. was listed for sale online.

The sale affects three separate Simpson departments: the Theatre department (Simpson Productions)

uses the old church to store equipment; the Music department that uses the church for minor storage purposes; and the Biology and Environmental Science department who uses the surrounding property as an outdoor ecology lab.The 8.9-acre lot, which includes the former Catholic Church and the prairie site, was listed online on July 15 for $290,000.

According to public state records, the lot was initially purchased by Simpson College on Sept.

The old Catholic Church at 1200 W Iowa Ave. has been used by Simpson Productions to store a variety of set pieces. (Amelia Schafer)

12, 2012, for $290,000.

In an exclusive interview with The Simpsonian on Sept. 13, Dean of Academics John Woell identified the potential buyer as The Karen Buddhist Association of Iowa, a group of Buddhist refugees from Myanmar. The group plans to turn the location into a Buddhist temple and the parsonage would be converted into a monastery.

After the Board requested that the property be sold, the college began hunting for potential buyers. Woell could not comment why the board requested that the property be sold. 

“Since the board had already asked that the property be sold, this seemed to be an outcome that allows us to maintain, educational, the educational integrity of the site, and our use of it for those purposes, while also following through on what the board wanted of us,” Woell said. 

The college has also posted a job advertisement in search of an assistant/associate professor tenure track in Buddhism, who would likely begin teaching in Fall 2022.

“We will have a new position in Buddhist studies with a resource, locally. We’ll be able to partner with our religion partners and things like that,” Woell said. “The Buddhists are excited about us, and we’re excited about working with them.” 

The lot’s sale depends on the confirmation of a zoning request submitted by the Karen Buddhists to the City of Indianola requesting that the lot be identified as a religious site. The lot was originally zoned as a religious site but lost that status in 2012 when the college purchased it.

The lack of transparency from the institution regarding the actual sale of the property has confused students and faculty who were not made aware of the sale until they spotted the listing online. 

“I just thought we would have been, not necessarily consulted, but at least alerted by someone in the administration that it was a potential outcome and that they’re considering selling,” Biology Professor Ryan Rehmeier said.

The Biology department has used the land surrounding the church since 2017, which started as an initiative by Sydney Samples of the Sustainability Club. Samples proposed the project to the Student Government Association in 2016 and was approved by the President’s Cabinet in 2016.

The prairie seeds were purchased by SGA in 2017 for a total of $5,000, according to SGA’s Sept. 8 Livestream. SGA stated in the Livestream that they were not made aware of the sale until The Simpsonian reached out for comment. 

Almost all of Iowa was once covered in tallgrass prairie, which now is only found in 1% of the state. The outdoor ecology lab features tallgrass prairie and allows students to work with Iowa’s native flora. (Amelia Schafer)

“Often, we have our biology 110 the introductory biology class, visit at least once,” Rehmeier said. “I use it in my ecology classes, and so does Professor Meyer, who’s an entomologist and aquatic ecologist; he regularly takes his labs over there to do netting and things like that. And then we do have independent research students who are doing it as a part of their degree, so it’s used pretty widely both in our class in the lab sections of our classes as well as our independent research for students.” 

Regarding the loss of an outdoor research facility, Woell said that the Karen Buddhists plan on allowing the Biology and Environmental Science department to still use the prairie, and will not be touching the land.

“Their plan is to keep the land open and undeveloped,” Woell said. “They’re just going to fix up the two buildings that are already there.” 

Woell added that the school is currently working on a written agreement with the Karen Buddhists to guarantee students the right to still utilize the land for projects. 

According to Professor Jennifer Nostrala, Simpson Productions uses the inside of the church to store different set pieces, props and furniture from past productions to recycle them for future use. The department also stores costume pieces for current productions inside. 

The Music department uses the location for minor storage purposes.

“I mean, we’ve got some old cases and I think some dilapidated keyboards,” Professor of Music Mike Eckerty said. “The room is not really properly maintained for its climate. It was never a safe place to store instruments.” 

Environmental Science Major, Mary Hendon, has used the lot for past research and said she was alarmed to hear about the location’s sale. 

“Almost all of Iowa once was tallgrass prairie and now there’s only 1% of the prairie that once was,” Hendon said. “So, this restoration project is really important for ecological reasons and to make the management even harder? I just, I don’t know, it’s quite frustrating.”

 

Senior Jessica Wood has been working to bring awareness to this issue of transparency from the college after seeing how the change has affected her friends in Simpson Productions and the sciences. 

“I’m just angry,” Wood said. “I’m angry because this is happening again; I’m angry that Simpson literally turned over a brand new leaf – we had a brand new president, we had a brand new cabinet, we just, we elected new board members. They had the chance to be transparent and literally just start off on a good foot, and this is how they did it.”

Hendon has also been involved with Simpson Productions and voiced her concerns about the process of moving the set pieces. 

“That church is almost entirely packed with set pieces,” Hendon said. “If we were to get rid of this building, where would the theater go? If we had to get rid of those pieces, that is $1000s of scenery – not to mention the fact that we would have to pay the work studies and maybe outside people to do all of that because it will take a lot of time to clear out that church.” 

The college has no official plan on exactly where or when the equipment will be moved but has several ideas, according to Woell, but one potential location could be the facilities/graphic design building inside of the Howard Street Lab. 

The large storage room was previously used to house furniture from around campus that had to be moved due to COVID-19 social distancing concerns but is now mostly empty. Equipment would be moved by the facilities’ workers from the church into the new storage location.

The sale is currently still pending.