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Civic Skinny

The double life of Kirk Blunck — architect and debtor.

2/3/2016

Kirk Blunck, who died last week under what the medical examiner called “suspicious” circumstances at the bottom of some stairs in the Teachout Building that he had restored in the East Village, was a good architect and a bad businessman.

Like many of the best local architects of the past 50 years, Blunck worked under Chick Herbert, the kind and talented man who nourished the likes of Cal Lewis and Paul Mankins and Doug Frey and Rod Kruse as they were starting out. Blunck ultimately became president of HLKB — he was the B in the renamed Herbert firm — before setting out on his own.

But he led a double life — or at least a life of great contradictions. He was president of the Des Moines Art Center for four years — but he was a slumlord, too. He carefully restored lovely old buildings — but he let at least one become a rat-trap. He owned a popular bar — but the city closed it down as unsafe.

He led renovation in the East Village — but he wasn’t paying on $682,500 in second mortgages held by the city of Des Moines on his Teachout and Hohberger buildings, and the city was looking into suing him.

Though he lived in a 5,000-square-foot Waterbury Road house assessed at $682,900, he often was late paying his property taxes — and, ultimately, he quit paying. According to county records, six months ago the property was sold at a tax sale for $17,375, presumably the amount of the unpaid taxes. A property owner has two years to redeem after such a sale — paying the tax-sale buyer the amount plus 2 percent a month in interest. As of last week, the property had not been redeemed, county records indicate.

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He was a pioneer in changing the East Village, and he was always winning awards — and always being sued. Over the years, he was sued by everyone from One Iowa to Capital One. (The most recent was the Capital One suit, in which the bank said Blunck owed $3,286.11 on a credit card. He failed to show up in court, and on Dec. 31 a default judgment for that amount was entered against him.) All told, more than a score of suits were filed, and he lost most of them. Sometimes, he didn’t show up to defend himself. He went to the Finley law firm to defend him in several suits — and then he didn’t pay the firm. (It sued, and he settled last year on the day he was supposed to show up in court with all of his books and records.)

The police have said nothing about the death, except that they are looking into it. A police crime-scene vehicle was parked outside the Teachout Building last week. Rumors abound — from bad health to bad luck to bad circumstances. Kirk Blunck was 62 when he died. …

Planning ahead: Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds raised $529,375 in political contributions last year and ended the year with $553,520 in cash, a nice base to build on for a gubernatorial run in three years. Most of the 150 or so contributions were gifts of $250 or less, and nearly all came from outside the Des Moines metro area.

But there were some big exceptions on both counts: Denny Elwell gave $20,000, Michael Krantz, of the Adventureland family, wrote a check for $15,000, and so did Nixon Lauridsen and Alan Zuckert. Jim Cownie gave $10,250, Kyle and Sharon Krause gave $10,000, and so did Gary Kirke, Charlene Lamberti, Doug and Donna McAninch and Hy-Vee’s Randy and Dawn Edekere. Checks for $5,000 came in from Ron Daniels, Lynette and Kurt Rasmussen and Jon Troen of West Des Moines.

Other big donors: Richard and Joan Stark, who list their address as Boca Raton, Fla., but who have Fort Dodge ties, each gave $10,000. Board of Regents president Bruce Rastetter gave $10,000, and new Regent Mary Andringa and her husband, Dale, gave $7,500. The largest contributor: Eldon Roth, the Dakota Dunes, S.D., president of Beef Products Inc. and always a huge contributor to Gov. Terry Branstad, tossed in $50,000.

Branstad himself raised $172,218 in the 12-month reporting period ended Jan. 19 and ended the period with $163,857 on hand. Among his $65,561 expenditures last year: $1,000 to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and (happily) $553 to the Iowa Cubs. …

Friends of Chet Culver say he is backing away from running for Congress this year. He says “no comment at this time.” …

Randy Evans, the retired Des Moines Register newsman who now fights the good fight as head of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, asked the University of Iowa for the polling data the Strawn Company compiled for it in its survey of how Iowans perceive the university. The university declined, alleging it was not covered by the Iowa Open Records Act.

First of all, the report is the work of the Strawn Company — though it was paid for by the university and is in the possession of the university — and might not “meet the threshold test as a public record,” the university said. Second, it said, if the report was released it “would give advantage to our competitors” and “would serve no public purpose.”

And in a particular snotty line, university general counsel Carroll J. Reasoner told Evans, “If others want to know how the university is perceived, they can conduct their own polling.”  That’s the lawyerly way of saying “fuck you.”

Evans said he was disappointed, but not surprised. “With increasing frequency the university acts as if it were a private entity, not one that belongs to the people of Iowa. The university spent one-third of a million dollars on this polling….It’s troubling that the university administrators do not think the people have a right to see what the university got for its money. To dismissively claim that there is no public interest in this is so wrong-headed. This is the second largest public university in the state” — that’s kind of a shot across the bow of the state’s “flagship” university — “this is not a private corporation.”

Footnote: Floyd Abrams, the famous First Amendment lawyer, will deliver the annual Richard S. Levitt Distinguished Lecture at the university on March 1. It is entitled “Free Speech on Campus.” CV

QUOTE

“I suppose, based on the U of I’s thinking, that if Ferentz slapped a copyright on his starting lineup he wouldn’t have to release that.”

— Randy Evans, head of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

QUOTE

“This is a clear case of greed by a colossal cad.”

— William Zabel, lawyer for the children of Melva Bucksbaum, speaking to the New York Post about her widower, Ray Learsy, and his desire for more than the $40 million she left him from her estate of $200 million or so.

COMMENT: SO LONG

Well, they’re gone.

The candidates and their entourages have moved on, and we won’t see much of them for a long time.

But weren’t we lucky?

Weren’t we lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with the men and women running for president of the United States, to chat with them, to query them, to argue with them, to appraise and apprise first hand how they fared against each of our individual yardsticks that measure what we want in a President?

Weren’t we lucky to watch the debates first-hand?

Aren’t we lucky to be Iowans?

The pundits and politicians can argue all they want about whether Iowa is the right place to start a campaign, about whether Iowa is representative of the nation, about whether Iowans are typical Americans. And you can bet that that argument will flare up again after November.

But you can’t argue that Iowans didn’t seize the opportunities we had — listening and learning. (And jacking up hotel prices.)

And you can’t argue that Iowans didn’t play the roles we were supposed to play in this reality show — informing ourselves so we could ask intelligent questions, understanding that each of the three million of us represented another 100 people across America who didn’t have the opportunities we had. And gently explaining to reporters what Iowa is — a state where farmers make sophisticated pricing decisions while plowing the land, a state where insurers leave for international trips just after the Little League game, a state where professors plot how to explore the universe as soon as the wrestling meet is over.

No one knows how the election will play out of course, about who will be left standing in August, and who will win in November.

No one knows how it all will end.
But we know it got off to a great start.
You should be proud.
Congratulations for helping to keep democracy on track. CV

— Michael Gartner

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