The $4.5 million project undertaken on the building's upper two stories by Community Housing Initiatives, Inc. (CHI) not only promises to restore the building facade, but to convert its second and third floors into 16 one- and two-bedroom rental units.
In addition to the nonprofit housing developer headquartered in Spencer, partners who've teamed up in the unfamiliar territory of readapting the former school building's uses were recognized. They include the Spencer school district, the Friends of the Auditorium nonprofit group, the city of Spencer, the Clay County Board of Supervisors and the Spencer Area Activity Center. Besides the affordable housing rental units the former school building will host, its first floor is set to accommodate Spencer Area Activity Center participants. The building's historic auditorium area is also slated to be restored.
"Adapting this building to new uses, included much needed affordable housing, as well as the senior citizen center on the first floor, is such a win-win for Spencer," said Mary Jean Montgomery, the CHI board president. "These projects, however, are not for the week of heart. They're often extremely complicated. I can see lots of people smiling and laughing because they know how many hours were spent in conversations."
As the project's wide-ranging group of partners was recognized, Spencer residents Ann Holck, Martin Arthur, Sheriffa Jones and Julie Schmidt, who formed the nonprofit Friends of the Auditorium group, were identified as being the catalysts for the ensuing community partnership, as well as for what is currently happening with the building.
"These four individuals were critical to this work and they had unwavering passion for this building," Montgomery told the crowd gathered.
"I think it's a great example of what can be done with partnerships in a small, rural community," Schmidt said of the collaborative effort to date following the presentation. "I'm pleased to see it all coming to fruition."
Martin, Jones, Holck and Schmidt -- who remain passionate about retaining the building's historic auditorium and classroom area -- were also responsible for pulling CHI into the mix nearly two years ago. Founded in 1994, this Spencer-based organization is recognized as being the largest nonprofit housing developer in Iowa today. CHI also owns and manages over 1,000 affordable housing units across the state of Iowa.
Kris Vodraska of CHI, who will serve as the construction director for the building's housing project over the next year, indicated she was among those attending Monday's ceremony who attended classes in the building as a Spencer Junior High student. It was also mentioned that the housing unit portion of this project should be complete in December or January 2010.
"As much as it comes in handy, projects like this don't come about from Advil and coffee alone," Doug LaBounty said to a collective laugh. As CHI's president thanked Henkel Construction and Cannon Moss Brygger & Associates for their efforts to date in the building, he continued, "These projects actually have costs that need to be paid for. So, it's important to recognize our financial partners as follows: Northwest Bank, the Iowa Finance Authority, Iowa Department of Economic Development, Midwest Housing Equity Group, NeighborWorks America, Spencer schools, the National Parks Service and the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. It's very common for projects like this to have 8-15 sources of financing to put these things together. And, this project is no different in that respect."
"Without the green light from the school board, this project never would have happened," Montgomery said.
Superintendent Greg Ebeling reflected on how this building's transformation has been an interesting journey for him.
"Five years ago, when I came into the district, there was a lot of momentum around our new middle school and that building. The bond issue had just passed and there was a lot of discussion about what was happening with our new construction. Of course, one of the questions I asked right away when I came into the district was, 'So, what's the plan for the old middle school,'" Ebeling recalled.
The answer he heard at that time: We don't have a plan.
"A couple years ago, the school board put out a request for proposals for people who would propose anything and everything to do with this facility. Only one group stepped forward, and that was the Friends of the Auditorium. Really, it was their catalyst that helped push this along. So, you can't underestimate the power of just a few people -- because you're really talking about four individuals who went out and brainstormed a lot of different ideas about what could be done. That really is what brought us to this point today. So, they really need to be thanked," Ebeling said.
Spencer's superintendent also acknowledged that the cooperation and partnerships formed through this project are currently advancing into different arenas. The Spencer Area Activity Center, which intends to relocate onto the building's first floor around Jan. 1, 2010, was listed as an example.
"It talks a lot about what the spirit of Spencer really is: There is a lot of great cooperation in this community and people who want to make good things happen," Ebeling said. " ... In the end, what a viable building that would have cost the school district lots and lots of money just to basically have a bare lot. That would have been a real shame. So, we're now able to salvage this building, salvage the history here and make it viable for years to come."
Spencer City Manager Bob Fagen is another of the city's officials who spent time looking at the building's potential uses.
"On behalf of the city of Spencer, we're truly excited about this project moving forward from today," Fagen said. "One of the things that can't be left behind is the fact we are reclaiming the building."
As the city manager indicated a priority of Spencer City Council members was seeing more affordable housing established in town, he noted they were also charged with finding somebody to occupy the building's first floor. Fagen also acknowledged that the Clay County Board of Supervisors has approved funding a portion of the senior center's relocation to the former middle school's first floor.
As Monday's launch ceremony wound down, Montgomery told those in attendance that CHI is assembling collectibles from the school.
"If you went to high school or to middle school here, ... we are collecting memorabilia because we're going to keep the trophy cases and we'd like to have some of that school history present in those trophy cases. So, if you have some or know of someone who does, please contact Kris Vodraska," she said.
Following representatives from each of the groups taking a sledgehammer to one of the building's interior third-floor walls, pre-construction tours of the historic building followed yesterday's launch ceremony. Glen Chenhall, a 1951 Spencer High School graduate who lives in rural Spencer, was among those who took a tour.
"It's interesting to see it stripped bare," Chenhall said while standing in one of the building's second-floor hallways. "This area in here, was a big room that once was two stories high. They called it an old assembly hall today, but we called it a study hall. Through the summer of '49 or '50, they split it into two levels, or two floors. Up until then it had been a two-story high room. By my senior year, '50-'51, the school library was up on the so-called third floor, which had just been upper air space before they split it."