Luster Heights could be new home of Refuge’s McGregor District office

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Luster Heights might soon have a new occupant. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently in talks with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to purchase the 25-acre site near Harpers Ferry for re-location of the McGregor District office of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

“Right now, we’re checking all the boxes to make sure it works for us,” said Refuge Manager Sabrina Chandler.

The Iowa Department of Corrections closed Luster Heights Correctional Facility last February due to budget cuts, and later turned the property over to the Iowa DNR, which controls state forest land around the site.

“We’ve just been sitting with it,” said Scot Michelson,  the Northeast Iowa District Parks Supervisor for the Iowa DNR. “There are so many facilities—buildings and sewer lagoons. We could use some of them, but it would cost a lot to utilize them.”

The DNR, said Michelson, simply doesn’t have the budget to maintain or rehab the site.

In fact, some buildings, such as the greenhouse, have already been moved to other facilities where they can be utilized, he said.

“We want to utilize what we can up there,” he stated.

Over the summer, District 56 State Rep. Kristi Hager unveiled a petition that asked the state to lease Luster Heights for use as a faith-based, nonprofit, transitional living center for individuals coming out of jail/prison or struggling with homelessness or substance abuse issues. In late November, Hager said she was notified that the petition was denied.

“The Natural Resource Commission responded to our 280-plus signed petition that our reason for the lease did not line up with their purpose statement,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the McGregor District has been searching for a new office location for quite some time, said Chandler. They’re currently leasing a building at 470 Cliff Haven Road, in Prairie du Chien. The office has been located there since 2015, when the main building between Marquette and McGregor was condemned due to moisture and falling rock concerns. FWS still owns the Iowa location and continues to use the shop.

“We’ve been looking to purchase land along the Mississippi River, but had not been making headway,” Chandler noted. Then Luster Heights came along.

Chandler said the McGregor District office likely wouldn’t use all the buildings at the Luster Heights site.

“We would probably remove some and rehab some existing ones to bring them up to federal standards,” she said. “At some point, we hope to build a new facility that the public could come to and see dioramas and other exhibits.”

Refuge staff would also be excited about the opportunity for people who visit their office to utilize the state hiking trails near the site, Chandler added.

The potential FWS site would have the same imprint as Luster Heights.

“It would be a federal spot inside a state forest,” Michelson said.

Although talks are still continuing, the DNR views the opportunity as a good business decision, he noted.

“This is going to save us tax dollars,” he said. “Plus, the DNR is a conservation agency, so it would be nice to have it go toward another conservation agency with the same mission. It’s the best opportunity for both of us right now.”

Chandler agreed: “We liked being in the McGregor-Marquette area. It’s a good opportunity to be back on that side of the river.”

Once the new location is officially secured, Chandler said the General Services Administration, or GSA, will go through the process of excising the property between Marquette and McGregor, likely through auction or even an outright sale.

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