MUSCATINE, Iowa–The largest freshwater pearl button factory in the world, the McKee Button Factory, has played a key role in Muscatine’s history and helped define the look of its riverfront since 1917. Over 100 years later, the building still stands, though the McKee family closed their factory and sold the building in 2020. At the March 10 in-depth city council meeting, Kent Corporation Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Enterprise Risk Rich Dwyer presented Kent’s plans to rehabilitate the facility into office space and their desire to receive support from the city in the form of tax increment financing, or TIF, and a parcel of 1.14 acres of land adjoining the factory to convert into a parking lot.
In 1936, Kent Corporation built its corporate headquarters in Muscatine and has remained in the city ever since. According to Dwyer, Kent found itself needing additional office space and considered building additional offices next to its existing headquarters at 2905 Highway 61 North in Muscatine in 2019. Like so many projects begun at that time, it got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic started early in 2020.
Later that year, Kent Corporation purchased the McKee Button Factory and began exploring how they could convert it into offices. Dwyer elaborated, “we purchased this facility with the hopes to repurpose for additional offices and keep a legacy facility for another 100 plus years.”
On November 16, 2020, the McKee Button Factory joined the National Register of Historic Places. Understanding the importance of this site in Muscatine’s history, Dwyer expressed interest in retaining its character even as Kent gave it a new purpose. “We would like to preserve its history and uniqueness to the button industry,” he explained. “We’re working closely with the state historic preservation office to bring the building back to life,” he further outlined.
Currently, Dwyer estimates that Kent will complete rehabilitation work on the building by spring of 2024. Throughout the project, Dwyer stressed Kent would use local labor and resources when possible. “We’ll continue our longstanding support of working with local contractors, local suppliers, and local workers where we can with the rehabilitation,” he stated.
Once finished, the facility will have space for approximately 112 to 115 offices. Initially, 53 employees from the current Muscatine headquarters will move to the space. Over the span of roughly three to five years, Kent plans to bring in about 60 additional workers as well.
In order to bring these plans to fruition, which Dwyer expected to cost between $19-20 million, he requested the city provide tax increment funding with a 50 to 75% rebate for 10 years. He also asked that the city deed over 1.14 acres of unused land for Kent to turn into a parking lot suitable for the number of workers who would eventually have jobs there. In order to create the parking lot, Kent would remove several abandoned structures from the spot and abate any asbestos in them. Kent would also surround the parking lot with greenspace that connects up to the existing facility’s grounds, creating McKee Plaza.
Following Dwyer’s presentation, city council appeared amenable to these plans. The council gave consensus for city staff to put together a tax increment funding proposal for the site. In a special meeting directly following the in-depth meeting, they unanimously approved setting a public hearing to declare the land directly next to the McKee Button Factory surplus so they could later vote to deed it over to Kent.