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Renovations underway at former elementary school; family-geared groups to be new tenants

August 26, 2017 Updated: August 26, 2017 at 11:06 pm
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Construction workers repair and fix the outside of the old Helen Hunt Elementary school to transform it into a nonprofit hub and create the old buildings into offices for nonprofits on Thursday August 24, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

After a year of planning, a vision to bring beneficial services to an older, low-income Colorado Springs neighborhood is becoming clearer.

Soon, free early-childhood care, clothing closets, foodstuffs, supplies for babies, programs for disabled children, low-cost English language classes and other amenities for families who are struggling financially will be offered at the former Helen Hunt Elementary School at 917 E. Moreno St.

"There's a family theme, and we feel we have strong nonprofits that care about the Hillside neighborhood," said Zach McComsey, who is overseeing renovations.

Daniel Duran talks on the phone while looking at blue prints as construction workers repair and fix the old Helen Hunt Elementary school into a nonprofit hub and worked to transform the old buildings into offices on Thursday August 24, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

Four nonprofit organizations and one for-profit company will set up offices in one building at the defunct schoolyard.

Remodeling started over the summer and is expected to wrap up in November.

The John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation bought the 115-year-old 3-acre site in May 2016 from Colorado Springs School District 11 for $1, with the intent of turning it into a campus for nonprofit organizations.

Local philanthropist Margot Lane, who died in June, saw the need to retain the vibrancy the school provided in the neighborhood, said McComsey, who also heads an educational institute Lane started.

A member of the construction team works to repair and fix the old Helen Hunt Elementary school into a nonprofit hub and worked to transform the old buildings into offices for those nonprofits on Thursday August 24, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

D-11 closed the school at the end of the 2015-2016 school year because officials said it needed too many costly repairs. The school has been an anchor for the racially-diverse neighborhood, and residents were concerned the property would become blighted.

District leaders held public meetings to determine what to do with the campus and set conditions on its sale, including that the property be a community asset.

McComsey said the Lane Foundation is spending $2.5 million to renovate the newer of two buildings, which was added in 1966. The original school building opened in 1902. Plans for that building have not yet been determined, he said.

Construction includes removing asbestos, creating office space, upgrading utilities, improving the exterior, expanding parking and landscaping.

Construction workers repair and fix the old Helen Hunt Elementary school to turn it into a nonprofit hub and worked to transform the old buildings into offices on Thursday August 24, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette) 

"I think people appreciate that there's activity there," McComsey said. "We're excited about the tenants because of their reputation."

Some 100 groups toured the stately property that had fallen into disrepair.

"A lot of people were curious," McComsey said.

Many organizations considered applying to be located on the campus, he said, but "because of the uniqueness of the space, it was a challenge for most because it's so unconventional."

Tenants are being charged about $10 per square foot, and the for-profit business is paying a market rate of $13 plus expenses. McComsey said the money is being spent on tenant improvements.

Two organizations - Community Partnership for Child Development, or CPCD, and Catholic Charities of Central Colorado - have come up with an uncommon but practical pairing.

Catholic Charities is consolidating three of its departments and moving them from its downtown complex on West Bijou Street to a 25,000-square-foot chunk of Helen Hunt that used to be the principal's and administrative offices.

A day center for homeless and at-risk families, a program that assists pregnant and new mothers, including basic needs such as clothing and formula, and mentoring services for families experiencing homelessness will come under one umbrella and be known as Family Connections.

What that means, said Catholic Charities' CEO Andy Barton, is that upon walking in the door, families won't immediately be referred to another agency, as can happen with social service providers.

"It can be scary for families," he said. "They're trying to negotiate some pretty heavy issues."

Homeless families often aren't recognizable as such and live in their car, a motel or couch surf, Barton said.

They will not live at the Helen Hunt Campus but will receive a multitude of services designed to help them become independent again.

A partnership with CPCD will mean infants, toddlers and preschoolers of homeless or at-risk families will be able to enroll in Early Head Start or Head Start programs, which will operate on site.

CPCD will open two classrooms for prenatal care through 2 year olds and one preschool classroom for 3-5 year olds. The federally subsidized program is for low-income residents and also provides classes on parenting, budgeting and other skills.

Grants and donations totaling $50,000 will pay for CPCD's first year in the new building, said Noreen Landis-Tyson, CPCD's president and CEO. She expects the space to be ready to occupy in mid-September.

"It seemed like a match made in heaven to co-locate with Catholic Charities," she said. "We'll integrate kids whose families access services from Family Connections into the classroom."

Children who are homeless or near homeless are "the least likely to succeed when starting school," she said.

Children also will receive health screenings and developmental assessments.

The Helen Hunt Campus is on or near bus routes, which is also attractive to organizations.

"Helen Hunt is such an important part of the neighborhood and, philosophically, to know that a school is not sitting empty but taking on a new life in supporting families is encouraging," Barton said.

Catholic Charities also will offer English as a Second Language classes for immigrants and refugees.

Other Helen Hunt Campus tenants:

- Colorado Springs Food Rescue, which collects and distributes viable leftover food from school cafeterias, grocery stores and other sources, will relocate its headquarters and expand programming, which includes food education.

- PEAK Parent Center, which provides free and low-cost services to families of children with disabilities, including navigating inclusive education, and advocacy.

- The Shandy Clinic, a for-profit outpatient therapeutic practice started by Air Force Academy graduate Ty Shandy, and his wife, Amy. The clinic offers speech, physical and occupational therapy for children with disabilities, including autistic children, through an insurance and Medicaid model.

A $100,000 community playground at the southwest corner of the property will be built in partnership with Concrete Couch, a local arts nonprofit that often uses school children to help create public art.

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