Waterville Elementary School building to stay alive as Community Center

Repurposing an iconic piece of Waterville history ... Waterville Mayor Dave Monserud sits in the new Waterville City Council meeting room now located in the former Waterville Elementary School building. The Waterville Public Library and a room dedicated to Waterville history are also currently housed in the former school building, with planning also currently taking place for remaining space within the former school structure. Photo by Kelli Boylen.

Room dedicated to Waterville history ... Work is underway on the History Room in the new Waterville Community Center. The room will include new trophy cases (one of which is featured at right) and a display of photos of classes that graduated from Waterville High School. Photo by Kelli Boylen.

Public library now housed in director’s former first grade classroom ... Although the Waterville Public Library now has less space than in its previous location, Library Director Heather Bente said they are excited to be in the new location. The library’s 5,000 volumes are now housed in the Waterville Elementary School room where Bente once attended first grade. Photo by Kelli Boylen.

by Kelli Boylen

For many, the thought of the Allamakee Community School District closing the doors at Waterville Elementary School at the end of the school year earlier this spring meant the building would be left to its memories up on top of the hill and possibly fall into an undesirable existence. However, thanks to the generosity of people in the area, the school building will continue to serve “the town on the hill” as a community center.

Waterville city government has already moved its operations to the new Waterville Community Center and the Waterville Public Library has moved its more than 5,000 volumes and shelving to the new location. Work is also currently underway on a museum featuring the school and community.

Waterville Mayor Dave Monserud said when the Allamakee Community School District decided to close the school and put it up for sale, the city council originally had decided it was not fiscally possible for the City to make a bid on the structure.

Although it was known the school district did not want to split the property, the City was only going to bid on the parcel of land behind the school so the school playground could become a community playground. The City owned the playground equipment, erected in 2009 by the Waterville Parents for Progress group.

A small group of community members, some long-term residents and some new, approached the council and offered the City $15,000 to purchase the entire property. The Allamakee Community School Board accepted that bid in April of this year.

The five community members, Jeff and Andrea Mitchell, Clark White and Christopher Jordan, and Diane Rathbun said they decided to offer the funds  to acquire the school for the preservation and repurposing of the property, something that the Waterville City Council supported.

Since the donations from the original five, many Waterville High School alumnae have also donated generously, said Monserud, and those funds are being used for several projects within the community center.

Since the students were dismissed from Waterville Elementary for the last time at the end of May of this year, community members have been busy.

In the library, director Heather Bente and her dad, Bill Hillesheim, removed bulletin boards and blackboards, repainted walls and ceilings, refinished the floors and installed bookcases, shelving and the desk.

The new library space in the community center is less than half of the space they had in the old fire station location they renovated and moved into in 2013, but Bente and the Waterville Library Board thought the move was a good one. “The library is at the center of the community and having the library, playground, gym and city hall all here together will be good for the kids and their families,” she said.

Bente added, “More than 35 years ago I sat in this classroom as a first grader. Now it is my new working space where hopefully I’ll be able to continue to motivate people to learn and grow and do good in the world, something Waterville Elementary was very good at teaching its students to do!”

The Waterville-based business Paint Creek Soaps is moving into the old library location in Waterville.

Prior to the school coming up for sale, a committee was formed, mostly of school alumni, to create a Waterville school museum. The original idea was to have the collection of memorabilia be on display in a room adjoining the library - then located in the old fire station, and this was underway at the time the school was purchased by the City. That original plan switched gears as the community center plan started.

There are now six committees working on the Community Center, according to Monserud. In addition to the city council and library board, there is also the School Memorabilia Committee, Main Street Pride Organization and the new Park and Rec Committee that operate under them, in addition to the School House Development Board.

The School House Development Board is looking at options for the old brick portion of the school, which was built in 1922. Monserud said that committee is looking at funding options and possibilities to create housing.

Monserud said the Park and Rec Committee is made up of younger people and they recently met for the first time. They will focus on activities for young adults and children to start.

“I want to thank the members of these committees for the time they have spent in all of our planning and work sessions. Most have been meeting almost weekly since we started this project July 1,” Monserud said.

The old lunchroom, gymnasium and the council meeting room will all be available for rent to the public, and they are currently working on setting up guidelines and rates.

“We see family and community events happening in these spaces,” he said. The gym can accommodate larger events, like a wedding reception, and the lunchroom (holds up to 70 people) could be a nice place for a baby shower or other gatherings. The school kitchen and all the equipment in it will be available as well, opening the possibility for events to be catered on site.

Money raised from hosting events as well as other events, like an upcoming craft fair and open house (see sidebar article in shaded box below), are hoped to cover operating expenses.

There is one classroom downstairs, as well as the teachers lounge, which Monserud said could be used by a small business. Anyone who is interested can contact him at watmayor@hotmail.com.

Larry Ashbacher of Ashbacher Building Supplies has donated the materials needed to construct a shelter near the existing playground in honor of his parents, George and Belva Ashbacher. The shelter will be reservable as well. Monserud said the shelter is being built in a way that will make it easy to observe the playground.

There are already soccer fields behind the school, and there may be a softball field in the future.

In addition to donations received from community members, there were some funds left over from when RAGBRAI was in Waterville during summer 2017. Monserud said monies donated to the school will be used for projects and improvements, and the money raised for upkeep and maintenance will be kept separate.

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