GALESBURG — Residents toured the halls of Churchill Junior High School and expressed a mixture of optimism and trepidation during an event Thursday night centered on the prospect of turning the school building into a community center.
The event, hosted by Galesburg City Council members Jaclyn Smith-Esters and Dwight Wight, drew at least 41 people to the registration forms and featured tours led by students from the city’s youth commission.
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Mayor Peter Schwartzman and various city officials were also present and greeted visitors in front of the school’s lobby.
Fifth Ward Councilman Smith-Esters said she hopes the event will help people envision opportunities for the site and answer questions about what they call the “transparent” process of building a new community center wants to see in Galesburg.
“I just want to give the community a chance to look at the space. A lot of people might not know what it looks like, not all are from Galesburg or went to Churchill Junior High,” Smith-Esters said. “It’s hard to imagine things when we’re visual people, so it’s nice to see things and then kind of put on your dream hat.”
The thoughts of the public
The Register Mail asked visitors if they thought the city should acquire Churchill Junior High to convert it into a community center and, if so, what they would like to see in it.
Greg Loveless, who attended Lombard Middle School and said he recently returned to Galesburg after 37 years in California, reiterated that he would welcome Churchill being used as a space for children.
“It has to be used, this building is empty, it has to be used in every way possible to help the kids,” Loveless said. “When I came back, the first thing I saw was that there was nothing positive for young people to do.”
Chris Howland, who attended Churchill as a student and came to the open house with her partner Dave Howland, said the visit “reinforced her belief that there are a million possibilities”.
The two said the city should “definitely” acquire the school to host youth sports, children’s games, concerts and industrial arts programs.
“It’s a great venue,” said Dave. “I mean, the gym is in a lot better shape than we thought, as is the auditorium.”
The couple lives on the east side of Rice Lake, just outside the city limits, but said they see no reason why the center can’t serve the broader Knoxville area as well as Galesburg.
“We live in East Galesburg, so let’s hope it’s for us too,” said Chris. “I know the library wants one (a community center) but it offers so many more options than just a space.”
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Mike Acerra said he would prefer voters to decide whether the city should spend the $5-10 million to convert Churchill into a community center and that the need may exist, but he would like to see the need for the building is proven by a survey or poll to justify the cost.
“It’s like one of those things, where, once you have the building, are they going to come from?” said Acerra. “For example, what’s happening in Galesburg now that’s asking if we had a building could we do more of that?”
Jack Templeton, who said he has family ties to the Churchill building as his grandmother was involved in its groundbreaking, said he was “not sure it would be right for the city”.
Hattie Jacobs, who attended Churchill when she was younger, said she believes the center’s costs can be calculated if people work together and would like to see courses for youth and adults, such as drama classes, if people volunteer teach them.
“I’m very much in favor of them doing what they have to do to build a community center,” Jacobs said. “I think youth need it, older adults need it, I think it’s a good thing to have the two together. I think we can push each other to the limit.”
Sallee Wade said she was a wellness educator who came to the open house to see “both sides” of the Churchill dispute. She said she was amazed by the building’s natural lighting and green spaces.
“We desperately need a community center, not just for kids, but for the elderly and community classes,” Wade said. “I would like to teach there, that would appeal to me.”
Matthew Smith said he would like to have a transportation plan and that the center could help bring people together through educational, religious or professional events. Smith also mentioned how the council promised to build a new community center after selling the previous one to Iron Spike.
“I’m just talking about the possibility of having a space for kids that doesn’t cost money,” he said. “Something that is really available to everyone in the community. Sure you can go to the Y(MCA), you can go to many different places, but they cost. And I just think when we think about our population, we have to take that into account.”
Nick Elders said he attended Churchill Middle School and would not want the building to be left unkempt.
“I think it would be nice not to let it completely fall into disrepair, not to see the building fall apart,” Elders said.
Ted Hoffman said he would like to see more conceptual plans or a basic layout to envision what a community center in the school building would look like.
“It’s debatable,” Hoffman said. “I think everyone would love to see (more plans). But I think it’s just a bit too late for that.”
Two other people raised concerns about the cost of maintaining the building but declined to go on the record. Another person declined to go on the record but said the city should use the “excess” space Churchill would make available.
FAQS and afterthoughts
A Churchill Community Center FAQ document was provided alongside the event registration sheet, which Schwartzman said was put together by Knox County Board member Darla Krejci.
The mayor said she said the document was “inappropriate,” in Krejci’s words, because she volunteered to organize information from Schwartzman and city records to create answers to a number of potential questions about the proposed project.
Breaking down the cost of the community center, the document states: “It is misleading to say that the project is a $5-10 million project. That assumes the council has already determined it will invest an additional $5 million beyond the renovation. It can, but is unlikely to happen without a lot of community input.”
The document said that a November 2021 estimate by the Farnsworth Group put the cost of the building’s renovation at $4.13 million. The group also estimated the cost of asbestos remediation at $60,000, and the document estimated that additional remediation costs would be “probably no more than $200,000.”
On why a new $5 million building should not be built, the document states: “$5 million could build a new 25,000 square foot building. However, this is a third the size of Churchill and would miss much of what Churchill has to offer.
Of Churchill’s various offerings, the document listed: “A gymnasium, a commercial-size kitchen and dining area, an auditorium, an enclosed courtyard, a classroom specially designed for specialty classes (e.g., woodworking, vocational training, indoor farming). , cooking) and acres of surrounding property.”
When asked why “such a costly issue” is not being voted on by the public, the document said: “City councilors have voted for/against many high-priced initiatives without a referendum…Including the youth who would benefit from a community center.” do not belong to the electorate.”
After the open house, Fourth Ward Councilman White said he was very pleased with the turnout at the event.
“There were some people who came in here and were told how bad this building looked, and they walked away and said, ‘Well, it’s better than it was described,'” White said. “There are still people we have to bring up with numbers and numbers about what we want to do here.”
“This is our chance to get input, positive or negative, to figure it out, to work it out.”