Vilsack asking U.S.D.A. to be creative about future use of Iowa Wesleyan campus

MOUNT PLEASANT — The U.S.D.A. will become responsible for the Iowa Wesleyan campus in Mount Pleasant when the university closes May 31 and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says it’s “too early” to tell what’s next.

“Our folks will work with the community to see what the options could be,” Vilsack told reporters after a U.S.D.A. event in Ames. “I mean there’s a variety of opportunities to think about. I’ve asked the team to be very creative about this.”

Two weeks ago, the university’s board of directors voted to close the school at the end of the current semester. “Right now the community’s hurting. There are people whose lives are turned upside down and in that circumstance and situation you’ve got to be able to say to them: ‘We feel for you and we’re going to try our level best to create something good out of this that will help the community,” Vilsack said.

Iowa Wesleyan has had significant operating losses for years and nearly closed in 2018. The university owes $21 million on a USDA loan and another $5 million on a bank loan that was guaranteed by the U.S.D.A.

“One of the reasons we invested and have invested in other colleges across the country is that they’re an economic driver. They’re a job creator…A lot of opportunity can be generated by a college in a regional area,” Vilsack told reporters. “Wesleyan, I think they did an evaluation. They had a $50-70 million dollar impact on the community every single year, so that’s real and obviously the community is going to have to be dealing with the potential of how do we replace that.”

Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, was mayor of Mount Pleasant in the late 80s and early 90s. Vilsack indicated he’d like USDA staff to avoid dividing the 60 acre campus into parcels and selling off individual buildings.

“I’d like them to start working with the college to see whether or not there are other universities or colleges that might be interested. Are there other folks that might be interested in a campus of some kind? Are there agencies of the federal government, for example, that might be thinking about training facilities and could this be an opportunity,” Vilsack said. “People need to think creatively at this point to try to keep it as a whole, if possible, and keep it as the economic driver that it has been.”

Vilsack’s wife Christie is a Mount Pleasant native and Tom Vilsack told reporters she recently resigned from Iowa Wesleyan’s board of trustees and Vilsack said that means he may now speak and be involved in decisions about the campus property. Five years ago, the Vilsacks hosted a three day event on Mount Pleasant radio station KILJ that raised more than a million dollars for Iowa Wesleyan.