Ignacio’s ELHI Community Center, a nonprofit that supports other nonprofits, launched only four years ago, and in that time, the organization has undoubtedly brought a vibrancy to the community.
But the space it’s operating from, an old elementary school built in the 1940s, may or may not be suitable long term. The ELHI (Education, Health, Literacy and Inspiration) board and some of the tenants in the building are passionate to keep the operation going, while others are leaving.
Natalie Howard is a former ELHI board member and executive director of Silver Spruce Academy, an after-school enrichment program for home-schooled students. Silver Spruce is a current ELHI tenant. Howard, who helped launch ELHI, left the board two years ago due to disagreements about the building and she is currently in the process of finding a new location.
“We have so many nonprofits, it should be this wonderful space, but it is slowly being allowed to dilapidate,” Howard said.
She said there have been problems with the heating system, asbestos, cracked tiles, leaky roofs, awnings that fell off after the last major snowstorm and blocked doors, among other issues. She said some families withdrew kids who had asthma from Silver Spruce because of sensitivities to what they thought might be mold. The ELHI board said they had not heard of this.
Despite that, Howard said there haven’t been any asbestos or mold tests to ensure the building is safe. The building is owned by the Ignacio School District, and Howard said ELHI is the district’s last priority when it comes to maintenance.
“It’s not as problematic that some might think. It has any of the problems that any landlord-tenant association might deal with,” said Gina Schulz, who became the ELHI board chair in February. “I believe in reusing and recycling and ultimately upcycling that building. It has good bones and it has a lot of history in it.”
There is a deed restriction that specifies the building must be used for only K-12 educational purposes. Ignacio School District Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said the district could sell the building, but it would be a long process.
In addition to Silver Spruce, the 42,000-square-foot space currently houses a Christian school; church; three psychologists; a free clothing closet; art, dance and yoga classes at Dancing Spirit; and after-school programs run by the Southern Colorado Community Action Agency.
ELHI and the school district agreed to a five-year lease, which is up in September 2020. When ELHI first started, the idea was that an occupied building was better than a vacant one.
“Yes, we could have the building empty, we would still have to heat it, vandalism starts happening, then it becomes an eyesore for the whole community,” Fuschetto said.
There was a mutual understanding that ELHI could move in for cheap rent. Currently, rent totals $38,000 a year, which does not cover the $50,000 utility bill.
“I don’t know where you can find square-footage rental space for the prices that we’re getting,” Schulz said. “It doesn’t exist.”
The district has made improvements, including installing some LED lighting, roof repairs, a security system, a $30,000 investment in the kitchen, and they have fixed other issues as they come up. The problem with doing major renovation is once one wall is altered, then the whole building has to be brought up to code. The kitchen upgrade is an example of how a minor renovation can become an expensive investment.
Howard said another issue is maintenance is only provided on the days Ignacio schools are in session.
“As for major, major, major renovation, that’s not going to happen,” Fuschetto said. “For me to put in a new heating system, we’re talking millions of dollars. If we were going to do that, we would have remodeled that school and kept it as an elementary school.”
Kasey Corriea is an ELHI board member and founding member of Dancing Spirit Community Art Center. She said she has put in hundreds of unpaid man hours into the space. The inviting Inspiration Square in the front of the building is a reflection of the passion that’s been invested into making the building a community hub. Many of the programs wouldn’t have another place to go without the ELHI.
“Tenants need the space, so they don’t address issues,” Howard said.
Schulz, Corriea and others envision a future similar to Durango’s Smiley Building, an old school that was transformed into a multi-use space with a cafe and event space. Like the Smiley, Schulz thinks the ELHI could be a community driver and not just a building for the tenants.
“I want the ELHI to be a hotspot for community organizing,” Schulz said.
Howard said it’s difficult to apply for grants when ELHI doesn’t own the space; organizations are not as willing to invest in programs that may not end up benefiting the cause in the long run. La Plata Electric did provide a $10,000 grant the district matched to install a security system.
“The ELHI hasn’t begun to be a force in fundraising for its own existence,” Schulz said, but that is one of the new board’s central goals.
Schulz said the first step is to develop a strategic plan, which includes identifying community partnerships and determining grants such as federal USDA funds and private foundation potential. Schulz said eventually, rents will also have to increase in a way that is attainable for tenants but not a disservice for the district. Schulz said they are planning community input meetings, too.
“It’s really something special that we have to nurture and continue to grow,” Schulz said. “We are the story of doing a lot with a little and then trying to do a little more.”