Shuttered school finding new life as community center

August 10, 2010

Two years after Indianapolis Public Schools closed School 37, a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project is set to breath new life into a building that had served the Martindale-Brightwood community for 81 years.

Central Indiana Community Foundation is spearheading the plan to transform the 52,000-square-foot former school into a community center. Construction is scheduled to begin in September, even as organizers work to raise the $2.5 million to $3 million necessary to complete the project.

“Finally, we have something that belongs to the community,” said neighborhood resident Peggy Storey, 73. “It is ours.”

IPS gave the property to Marion County, which in June agreed to lease it to CICF. The foundation got involved because of a longstanding relationship with the near-northeast-side community and with Paul Estridge Jr., a Carmel-based home builder and CICF donor.

Estridge Cos. built a house in Martindale-Brightwood for ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in April 2009, and the CEO wanted to do more.

After some minor plumbing work, the building was put to use this summer as a day camp and Goodwill day reporting center for troubled youth. Now the transformation begins.

First comes fundraising. In April, the project received preliminary approval for a $1 million matching grant from United Way of Central Indiana.

The project’s fundraising committee will look to cover remaining expenses through financial and in-kind donations—free or discounted services from vendors—company service projects and an “adopt-a-room” program for businesses, which will allow local companies to get their name on one of the community center's rooms by making a gift, contributing volunteer labor or helping to raise money.

Organizers also are planning a community volunteer day in September.

“We want people to participate in this,” said chief fundraiser Rosemary Dorsa, CICF’s vice president for partnerships and special initiatives.

More than half of the 40,000 square feet of usable space has been rented already, with the Edna Martin Christian Center reserving 16,000 square feet for a child- and senior care and Kingsley Terrace Child Development Center planning to use another 5,000.

Tenant recruiters are in talks with the YMCA about building a fitness center inside as well, said Michael Richardson, School 37 Redevelopment Project manager and CICF staff member. CICF also is negotiating lease options with Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corp., Greater Citizens Coalition of Martindale-Brightwood and Bangladesh-based micro-lender Grameen Bank.

Dorsa and CDC Executive Director Josephine Rogers visited a similar school-turned-community center in San Antonio to get ideas. That facility is occupied by a variety of groups and businesses—the Center for Work & Families, San Antonio Children’s Museum, and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, among others—much like what is planned for School 37, Dorsa explained. Rogers said it served as the “hub of the community,” with art, dancing and singing programs, as well as a computer lab and job-training classes.

It’s a prototype for School 37, but a great deal of work still remains.

First up: A new heating and cooling system, fire suppression equipment and an elevator—for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance—must be installed before tenants can move in, Richardson said. The building’s last major renovation was in 1972.

Ideally, this “functional repurposing” will be complete by fall 2011, said Estridge, whose homebuilding company serves as the project’s unofficial construction consultant and overseer.

Even if the $3 million is raised and redevelopment goes as planned, the center’s long-term survival could remain a question, said David Reingold, professor and executive assistant dean of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Planners must evaluate the long-term operating costs, Reingold said. Often, donors will support construction projects, then assume the center will become self-sufficient, which he said oftentimes isn’t the case.

The responsible solution is to require a “companion gift” like many universities do, he said. When a donor makes a pledge to help construct a building, he also must provide something for continued maintenance.

Dorsa said companion gifts will not be required of School 37 donors. Once the center is fully occupied, the facility is expected to generate enough rental income to cover an estimated $350,000 in annual expenses.

And for the community to grow, the center must survive.

Despite a population of about 9,000, Martindale-Brightwood doesn’t have a place for the community to gather, many sources agreed. A thriving community center also could help improve the neighborhood’s image, Dorsa said.

About 70 percent of the area’s residents over the age of 21 have never attended college, according to a 2000 U.S. Census community profile. The median income is about $25,000.

“When people think about Martindale-Brightwood, they think, ‘Oh, [that’s] where the juvenile center is,’” she said. “That needs to change. And the community center could become that distinguishing figure.”

Its success is key to enabling the community—and businesses within it—to flourish, Estridge said.

“The first thing [the center] does is it stimulates a sense of community,” he said. “For business to thrive, people need to feel that there is a base … a neighborly connection. There isn’t that there today.”

That feeling of ownership is moving to Storey, the 73-year-old neighbor.

“It’s always powerful to say that something is ours,” said Storey, a School 37 alumna who has been asked to serve on the project’s building naming committee. “That is a powerful statement, and we haven’t been able to say that before.

“It’s on a hill,” Storey said of the schoolhouse, which opened in 1927. “And it stands there. And it’s there for us.”


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