- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

CLARINDA, Iowa (AP) - The 128-year-old former mental health institute in the small southwest Iowa city of Clarinda isn’t your typical real estate opportunity, and so far no one is rushing to move in.

More than seven months after the state closed the Clarinda Mental Health Institute, much of the sprawling building remains empty, including entire floors that haven’t been used in decades. With its gothic architecture set amid lawns and tree-lined paths, the former institute is impressive, but it’s also a site that Iowa’s governor labeled as outdated and inefficient.

When it closed June 30, 76 people lost their jobs.

“It really has been hard, just to watch all these people go out and staff lose their jobs and now we have this big building sitting here empty,” said Meredith Baker, an administrator who oversees the institute and an adjacent state prison.

A state commission chose Clarinda for its third asylum in 1884, and it was completed four years later following a design thought to enhance mental health treatment, set on secluded grounds in rural settings.

Over the years, parts of the two bottom floors were modernized, while some sections of the building were closed, allowing dust to collect on elegant light fixtures and ornate carpeting along wide hallways.

Still, it was a surprise when Gov. Terry Branstad opted not to fund the center and ordered its closure, along with a similar institute in Mount Pleasant. Despite the objections from many lawmakers and state employee union leaders, the last remaining patients were transferred to other locations last summer and the hospital was closed.

The state also is looking to lease the former Mount Pleasant institute, which remains mostly empty.

The state now operates two mental health hospitals, in Cherokee and Independence.

Portions of the Clarinda building are being used as a private drug and alcohol treatment center and dorms for delinquent youth. The basement also shares maintenance and kitchens with the adjacent medium-security Clarinda Correctional Facility.

“We have a prison on the ground, so whoever rents that space has to remember that there’s going to be offenders out walking around,” Baker said.

As part of her job, Baker has been tracking inventory and ridding the center of a huge inventory of bed frames, cabinets, desks and other items. A one-time patient commons area is now crowded with furniture being readied for removal.

Although some portions are modern, others give a glimpse back to the original decor, with white and red checkered floors and cage-like windows above hospital room doors. The third floor is off limits, and Baker said she didn’t even know how to reach that level.

When they talk about leasing out the building, local leaders focus on the modern sections and not the untouched parts.

John Greenwood, the director of the Clarinda Economic Development Board, has been working to find occupants for the former hospital. He said two mental health providers have expressed interest, but the recruitment process remained in its early stages.

In Clarinda, a city of 5,500 people and the county seat of Page County, the former mental health institute and adjacent prison are viewed by some as something of an oddity.

The city’s town square, surrounding a historic courthouse, is only about a mile from the old hospital, but Marvin McKinnon, the owner of a downtown shoe store, said he steers clear of the site because of the prison.

“A lot of people don’t even go out there and I can’t blame them,” he said.

Adrianna Sickels, who grew up in Clarinda and now lives 20 miles away in Bedford, said she grew up hearing stories about the hospital and tunnels that enabled staffers to move patients through the complex without “disturbing the peace.”

“A lot of people are scared to take it on because it’s such a big building, there’s so much history and there’s so many different suspicions about what happened there,” Sickels said.

Baker said she’s glad some mental health providers have inquired about the building, but she thinks it will remain largely empty for some time.

That will leave her among the few people who are roaming the old hospital’s hallways.

“It’s definitely different. You’re used to the hustle and bustle of people in there,” she said. “It’s just so quiet.”

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