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From high school to 'hub'

What will become of the 100-year-old Perham High School building when it's no longer a school? A group of community leaders is working on that, with hopes of converting it into a health and wellness and family services center. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus1 / 2
The Perham Area Community Center and the soon-to-be-former Perham High School building would function as two complementary pieces of the same pie under a new plan to create a Perham Area Family and Wellness Center. If preliminary plans and potential funding sources pan out, the two buildings could even be connected with a skyway (the buildings are close together; the high school can be seen in the background). Marie Johnson / Perham Focus2 / 2

What will happen to Perham High School once it's no longer a high school?

With the iconic 100-year-old building hosting its final class of graduates this year, that's a question a lot of people are asking.

And, depending on who you're talking to, there are a lot of possible answers. Rumors and speculation have been swirling around the fate of the building, including the ideas that it's going to be converted into offices, or torn down, or abandoned indefinitely.

Some key community leaders, however, are painting a different picture of the building's future. They say the 'old' school, in tandem with the adjacent Perham Area Community Center, is poised to become a one-stop shop for all things related to health, wellness and family in Perham.

Informally dubbed "The Hub" by these locals in the know, the proposed project was just given its official name (for financing purposes) last week: The Perham Area Family and Wellness Center. The name fits either way, as the idea is to bring the old high school and PACC together, transforming them into a centralized, comprehensive hub of resources for people of all ages, with a focus on families and wellness.

Plans are still in the infancy stage, but if preliminary ideas and potential funding sources pan out, The Hub could house a wide array of nonprofits and other service organizations to meet the needs of the community.

It could be a space for 24/7 daycare, for example, or a workforce training center, autism center or senior citizen's center. It could provide new and bigger spaces for the local Boys & Girls Club, Productive Alternatives or Adult Basic Education. It could be all these things and more, or simply some of them.

Under the current plan, the auditorium would be updated and improved for continued use by the community, and a gymnasium would continue to be used for gymnastics, along with a Kids Fitness Center. If parts of the school are found to be unsafe or unusable, those areas would be demolished, while other areas would be reworked to meet the needs of new tenants.

Meanwhile, the PACC would be upgraded to make the facility more family-friendly. As the results of a 2016 public survey revealed, people would like to see a big indoor playland for kids at the PACC, as well as a climbing wall and more water features around the pool for kids. Other improvements, like larger workout areas and family changing rooms, are also on the wish list.

Making all this happen would require substantial renovations and improvements at both the PACC and the old school. There's talk of constructing a skyway to connect the two buildings.

It's all just an outline of a dream for now, but a small group of school, city, business and community leaders, under the umbrella of the Perham Area Family and Wellness Center Committee, is trying hard to turn it into something tangible.

The committee has been meeting for months to flesh out a realistic plan for the buildings, and to figure out ways to pay for that plan. They've hired a Project Coordinator, Perham native Emily Dreyer, to lead the initiative, as well as a lobbyist, Cap O'Rourke, to try to help drum up some funding from the state legislature. In 2015, O'Rourke successfully lobbied the state for $10 million for flood protection around Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes west of Perham.

The total estimated cost of The Hub project is $14 million, by the committee's projection. They intend to ask the state for $8 million to $10 million; the rest could come from a mix of grants, donations, corporate sponsorships, new market tax credits, a sales tax or other sources. The committee is still exploring funding options, but they're adamant that property taxes won't be affected.

"One of the main goals is to keep it operational with minimal burden on taxpayers," said Tammy Sturdevant, a committee member.

Sturdevant said she's heard concerns from residents about the usability of the old school building. People have asked her why, if it wasn't good enough to be a school anymore, it's good enough for something like this.

"The old high school doesn't function efficiently as a high school anymore, but... it's still useful for other purposes," she explained. "There may be some parts (of the building) that are too expensive to update and need to be demolished, but if there is a cost-effective way to reuse some spaces for other community needs, then we'd like to pursue that."

"There's a lot of work to be done," she added. "People are working on studies to find out what makes sense to save and what's going to cost too much to save. There are a lot of people in town who don't want to see the whole thing demolished; plenty of people want to see some sort of use out of the building. We're trying to find that fine line of what makes sense financially."

Dreyer said the committee has about three months to hash out the finer details. They'll need to send in their bonding proposal to the state by early February, and the more concrete their ideas are, the greater their chance of success.

"I've been talking to different organizations to see if they'd be interested in renting space, talking to organizations about their hopes and dreams and how they'd like to expand," she said. "Now it's on the finance side and how much rent will cost, because that'll determine who's in there and who's not."

The hope of the committee is to have as much participation in The Hub as its footprint will allow, in order to offer as diverse an array of services and programs as possible.

"We're really trying to maximize the useable parts of the high school for nonprofits," said Fred Sailer, another committee member. "We feel that there are some areas within that building that would be just outstanding for families and wellness, and that it'll work out well for us."

"There'll be a lot of different things going on," said Dreyer of the committee's ideal. "It's such a prominent location; there needs to be some activity going on there, and I can see it being very active. I see people utilizing it."

The PACC is on 3rd Avenue SE, the main business corridor into town from Highway 10, and the high school is right around the corner from there on 5th Street.

A new Perham High School, currently under construction next to the middle school and visible from Highway 10, is scheduled to open in time for the first day of school next fall.

To share your ideas about The Hub, contact Project Coordinator Emily Dreyer at thehub.perham@gmail.com.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

(218) 346-5900 x222
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