LAFAYETTE — These buildings were the center of activity in their communities for decades, educating generations of children as schools.
When area school districts received the once-in-a-lifetime offer to build new facilities with the state picking up most of the tab nearly 20 years ago, they jumped at it. Officials in those villages looked at those soon-to-be empty facilities and started dreaming about transforming them into community centers, with mixed success.
“It’s kind of like owning Grandma’s old house,” said Tony Blake, the mayor of Harrod. “Everybody wants Grandma’s old house to survive, but we have to have a gameplan — a financial gameplan — to keep Grandma’s house alive.
“Of course, this is a lot bigger than Grandma’s old house. You definitely need to be able to facilitate it properly to be able to pay for it, between day-to-day operations, not to mention down-the-road maintenance and repairs that need to be done.”
The Harrod Event Center, 9520 Harrod Road, Harrod, rebranded itself in June when the village of Harrod took over operations from the former Allen East Community Center group, which ran the building under a contract once the new Allen East schools opened in 2007.
The village considered boarding up the building, which is mostly a 1977 addition to the original school that looks more modern with its bank of windows and attractive courtyard. Now it has “Old Man Basketball” every Sunday, a space to watch live-streamed sports from the nearby high school and rental spaces. There are also Head Start classes there. Leaders decided it had too much potential as a place for people to meet, celebrate and work together to abandon.
They felt the same way in Ottoville, which saw its school move into a new building in 2003. Much of the remaining building at 150 Park Drive, Ottoville, still stands, with part of it used for village offices, a branch of the Putnam County District Library, chamber of commerce and police department. The bulk of the building became a parish center for Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, with its dual spires nearly close enough to cast a shadow on the building.
“It’s been a great resource for community organizations that do use it,” said Renee Kelch, coordinator of youth ministry and parish programs for the Ottoville church. “We don’t necessarily consider it as a community building, but it is, in a sense.”
Still tied to schools
Some of the old school buildings in the region remain connected to the schools that built the facilities.
For instance, one of the biggest users of the Arthur-Lugibihl Community Center, 301 N. Jefferson St., Pandora, remains the Pandora-Gilboa schools, said Brian Miller, the committee chairman. P-G moved into its new campus in late 2003 but still needed some of its previous space.
Given the old building’s proximity to the football field in Pandora, the schools still use the locker rooms, which were recently renovated. The district also leases the gym, which recently had its floor resurfaced, for junior high practices and games. The weight room is also open for the school district, although the room is twice the size it was when the school district owned it.
Now the Arthur-Lugibihl Community Center, a community non-profit organization, is seeing increased interest in renting its facilities, thanks to extensive remodeling projects in the community room, including adding a dropped ceiling and restroom facilities in what was once a vocational agriculture room and then a band room.
“Since the time we first had to make a decision to keep the building, it’s been a real blessing,” Miller said. “In the last few years, through volunteer efforts and help from the community, we’ve really been able to make it better.”
In the case of Fort Jennings, the former gymnasium and classroom space are still owned by Jennings schools since moving to a new building in 2004. In addition to gymnasium space, the facility houses the Fort Jennings branch of the Putnam County District Library in the old high school band room since 2007. Organizations ranging from the Boy Scouts to Fort Jennings Lions Club also rent the facility, said Nick Langhals, superintendent and high school principal for Jennings schools.
Still, the school system is a major user of its former home, with practices in the old gym not just during basketball season but throughout the year.
“We also rent it out to the community if needed for different events,” Langhals said. “… It’s utilized quite a lot. It’s kind of a blessing we did keep it. I know everyone’s concerned about upkeep and maintenance and whatnot, but we feel like it’s definitely more beneficial than the expenses.”
These facilities face two challenges when it comes to renting out their spaces to the community. One is staying competitive and attractive with the competition. The other is making sure people realize the insides don’t look the same as they did when you last walked the halls as a student or visitor.
“I think it’s a hidden gem for people in the surrounding areas,” said Kim Staley, the event coordinator for the Harrod Event Center. “There’s so much potential for growth. It takes a fresh pair of eyes to see that potential.”
Staley has been active on the Harrod Event Center’s Facebook page trying to show everything happening there since she started on the job in August. She’s provided virtual tours that helped people see the potential for large and small gatherings in the building, which has seen a lot of renovation over the past decade. The building is set up to hold several events at the same time, with plenty of parking for each.
Renovations were key to the success at Immaculate Conception’s Parish Center, Kelch said.
“We remodeled the one room into a reception hall, and that really was an eye-catcher for a lot of people,” Kelch said of the former school cafeteria, which had a dropped ceiling, chandelier, lighting and sound buffers added. “Between its size and the amount of people it held, along with being just across the big parking lot from the church, it just makes sense.”
That was a goal in Pandora, too, Miller said, which spruced up its community room with dropped ceilings, fresh paint, televisions and more.
“We’ve been able to rent our community room space quite a bit more thanks to adding restrooms,” Miller said. “Previously you just had to use the restrooms that existed when the school was there, and it wasn’t really sufficient for the way we needed that facility to be used.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit these facilities too, though. The people running them often divide their thoughts between “now” and “before the pandemic,” with a hopeful optimism that things will return to the way they were before the coronavirus limited group gatherings.
The Harrod Event Center actually added programming, with a pair of food truck festivals to help give people things to do when the village’s annual Pork Rind Festival canceled due to virus concerns.
Miller admitted the financials for the Arthur-Lugibihl Community Center took a hit when the virus hit.
“Because of the COVID stuff, we lost some sponsorships,” he said. “We were on the ropes, but we did have some local businesses step up, and we’ve got their logos on the gym floor now.”
Immaculate Conception saw wedding receptions drop off because of the virus, but there was an uptick in community traffic from smaller groups that needed bigger facilities so they could spread out, Kelch said.
“The more we can use these things, the better it is for the upkeep,” Kelch said. “If something sits there and doesn’t get used, it’s harder on the building. I’d just encourage people to call the office and see how they can make use of our facility.”
In the end, the people behind these community centers will fight to keep them operating.
“The community needs something like this,” Blake, the mayor of Harrod, said. “We can all benefit from it being here.”