It’s been nearly four years since Whittier Elementary School closed its doors due to budgeting constraints in 2008-09 with no official use since housing students. But the Whittier Task Force, put together by the Brainerd School Board and Director of Business Services Steve Lund is working to change that.
Comprised of community members: DeAnn Barry, Kelly Bevans, Paul Bloom, Kevin Donnay, Shelia Haverkamp, Kathleen Hermerding, Kent Montgomery, Steve Northway, Mark Ostgarden, Krista Soukup and Jeff Torfin, the task force has worked diligently since January 2012 to come up with a possible idea and use for the vacant Whittier building.
But their latest idea plans to draw from the minds of the community members that have cherished the school for decades.
“We began (in January) meeting monthly to discuss ideas for this building when we all came to the conclusion that we (the task force) don’t want to just tell the community what we are going to do,” said Lund. “We instead decided that we want to engage the community and include them in this process.
“(Whittier) is a building with such a rich history and tradition that we want to keep that in mind in this process.”
The task force developed a two-question survey that was mailed to nearly 24,000 district residents beginning Friday, asking:
• What future use of the Whittier site could significantly benefit or improve our community?
• How will our community pay for the new use of Whittier?
Responses are due back to the task force by June 30, where they will be categorized as the group will then look toward the next step.
Not the first school in the area that has transformed from schoolhouse to community use, with the Franklin Arts Center the most recent, Lund said that Whittier poses a different set of challenges, being a smaller building than Franklin but a location set amongst a neighborhood, making a commercial use difficult.
“I think the school system looks closely at the schools that haven’t been kept in use and does a great job in to putting energy into finding a new use for them,” said task force member and Executive Director at Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. Shelia Haverkamp. “And I think using this survey to include the community is another thing that they are doing to really show that they don’t want this building to sit vacant anymore than the community does.”
Lund says finding a permanent use for Whittier is still a few years off and staff will continue to keep the building operational at a cost of running between $20,000-$25,000 a year. He added that this survey will be a big step in the first of planning.
“Who knows what kind of ideas lie out there that we might not have even considered,” said Lund. “We might be missing something, so that’s why we want to engage the public with this survey tool and see what we can come up with.”
For more information on the Whitter Task Force and the reopening project, visit www.whittierproject.org.