Open house prompts public opinions on city options with Churchill as community center

Samuel Lisec
Galesburg Register-Mail
Students from the city Youth Commission  provided tours for the public during an open house at Churchill Junior High School on Thursday, April 28, 2022. The event was hosted by council members Jaclyn Smith-Esters and Dwight White.

GALESBURG — Resident toured the halls of Churchill Junior High School expressing a mix of optimism and trepidation during an open house event Thursday evening focused on the prospect of turning the school building into a community center.

The event, hosted by Galesburg City Council members Jaclyn Smith-Esters and Dwight White, drew at least 41 people to the sign-in sheets and provided walk-throughs guided by students from the city’s youth commission.

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Mayor Peter Schwartzman and various city employees were also present, greeting visitors outside the school’s lobby.

Fifth Ward city council member Smith-Esters said she hoped the event would help people imagine possibilities for the site and answer questions in what she would like to see as the “transparent” process of building Galesburg a new community center.

“I just want to give the community an opportunity to look at the space. A lot of people might not know what it looks like, not everybody is from Galesburg or went to Churchill Junior High,” Smith-Esters said. “It's hard to envision things when we're visual people, so it's nice to see things and then kind of put your dream hat on.”

The public’s thoughts

Galesburg City Council members Jaclyn Smith-Esters and Dwight White hosted an open house at Churchill Junior High School on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

The Register-Mail asked visitors if they thought the city should acquire Churchill Junior High to turn it into a community center, and, if so, what they would like to see inside it.

Greg Loveless, who attended Lombard Middle School and said he had recently returned to Galesburg after living in California for 37 years, affirmed he would like to see Churchill used as a space for children. 

“It needs to be utilized, this building is empty, it needs to be utilized in whatever way it can to help the kids,” Loveless said. “When I came back, the first thing I'd seen, there wasn't nothing for youngsters to do that's positive.”

Chris Howland, who attended the Churchill when she was a student and came to the open house with her partner Dave Howland, said the visit “reinforced their thoughts that it has a million possibilities.”

The two said the city should “definitely” acquire the school to facilitate youth sports, children's plays, concerts and industrial arts programs.

"It's a great venue,” Dave said. “I mean the gymnasium is in way better shape than we thought it was, same with the auditorium. We were led to believe that the place was all falling in, and it's not in the least."

The couple lives on the east side of Rice Lake, outside of the city limits, but said they don’t see a reason why the center couldn’t serve the broader Knoxville region as well as Galesburg. 

“We live in East Galesburg, so we're hoping that it's for us too.” Chris said. "I know the library wants to have one (a community center) but this gives so many more possibilities than just a room."

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Mike Acerra said he would prefer the voters to decide whether the city should spend the $5-10 million to turn Churchill into a community center and that maybe the need exists, but he would like to see the need for the building demonstrated through a poll or survey in order to justify the cost. 

“It's like one of those things where, if you have the building, will they come?” Acerra said. “Like what are the things happening in Galesburg now that are begging, if we had a building we could do this more?”

Jack Templeton, who said he has family ties to the Churchill building as his grandmother was involved in its groundbreaking, said he’s “not sure if it would be the right fit for the city.”

Hattie Jacobs, who attended Churchill then she was a younger, said she thinks the cost of the center can be figured out if people work together and that she would like to see classes for youth and adults, such as theater classes, if people volunteer to teach them. 

“I am very much in favor of doing what they have to do to build a community center,” Jacobs said. “I think the youth need it, older adults need it, I think it's a good thing to have the two together. I think we can work off each other.”

Sallee Wade said she is a wellness educator who came out to the open house to see “both sides” of the argument over Churchill. She said she was excited by the building’s natural lighting and green spaces.

“We desperately need a community center not only for kids but for elderly people and community classes,” Wade said. “I would want to do some teaching there, it would excite me.”

Matthew Smith said he would like there to be a transportation plan and that the center could help pull people together through educational, religious, or vocational events. Smith also mentioned how the council promised to provide a new community center after selling the previous one to Iron Spike.

“I mean just the opportunity to have a space for kiddos that doesn't cost any money,” he said. “Something that really truly is available to anyone in the community.  Sure, you can go to the Y(MCA), you can go to lots of different places but those cost. And I just think when we think about our population, we have to consider that.”

Nick Elders said he attended middle school at Churchill and that he wouldn’t want the building to go uncared for. 

“I think it would be nice to not let it go completely to rack and ruin, to not see the building fall apart,” Elders said. 

Ted Hoffman said he would like to see more conception plans or a basic layout to help envision what a community center would look like inside the school building. 

“It's questionable,” Hoffman said. “I think everyone would like to see (more plans). But I think it's just a little too late for that.” 

Two other people expressed wariness at the cost of maintaining the building but declined to go on the record. Another person declined to go on the record but said the city should take advantage of the “excess” space Churchill would provide.

FAQS and afterthoughts

A “Churchill Community Center FAQ” document was provided next to the event’s sign-in sheet that Schwartzman said was compiled by Darla Krejci, a member of the Knox County Board.

The mayor said to say the document was in Krejci's words would be "inappropriate," as she volunteered to organize information provided by Schwartzman and city records to layout answers to a series of potential questions about the proposed project.

On a breakdown of the community center’s costs, the document asserted: “It is misleading to say the project is a $5-$10 million project. This assumes that the council has already determined that it will invest an additional $5 million beyond renovation. It may, but it is unlikely to do that without a great deal of community input.”

The document recorded that a November 2021 assessment from Farnsworth Group estimated the cost of renovating the building would be $4.13 million. The group also estimated asbestos abatement to cost $60,000 and the document estimated there would be additional abatement costs “likely not exceeding $200,000.”

On the subject of why not build a new building for $5 million, the document says: “With $5 million a new 25,000 sq. foot building could be built. However, this is one-third the size of Churchill and would lack a lot of what Churchill has to offer."

Of Churchill's various offerings, the document listed: "a gymnasium, a commercial size kitchen and eating area, an auditorium, an enclosed courtyard, a classroom space specifically set up for specialized classes (i.e. woodworking, vocational training, indoor agriculture, cooking) and acres of surrounding property.”

To the question why "an issue this costly" is not being voted on by the public, the document says: "The city councilors have voted for/against many high priced initiatives without a referendum... Also, the youth who would benefit from a community center are not part of the voting public."

After the open house was over, Fourth Ward city council member White said that he was very pleased with the event's turnout.

“There were some people that came here and they were told how bad this building looked and they're walking away saying, 'Well, it's better than it was described,'" White said. "There's still people that we need to come up with numbers and figures on what we want to do here."

“This is our chance to get input, either positive or negative, figure it out, work it out."