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Helen Hunt School will become a nonprofit campus



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Looks like a local school campus will soon become a nonprofit campus. You might be thinking of something along the lines of how Ivywild was redeveloped, but that's not exactly right. Although similar in concept, the two buildings that make up Hillside's Helen Hunt Elementary School will be repurposed to continue to serve the neighboring community. Plans include using the school for nonprofit offices, Head Start/daycare classrooms and some type of kitchen operation.

A small group of diverse folks gathered at Hillside's Relevant Word Ministries the night of Wednesday, Feb. 15, to discuss what will become of Helen Hunt, the 100-year-old school (currently not listed on any historic register) that closed in District 11 last May. Until now, there has not been an official report from The Lane Foundation, which purchased the buildings in August for $1 (with the stipulation that the school remain an edifice that fosters community empowerment). Many rumors of what the school is to become have swirled within the community since the time of its purchase.

Those at Wednesday's assembly included white, black and brown — teenagers, middle-agers and longtime senior residents, all curious to learn about the future of their community. This meeting also served as a mini-reunion for former founding members of the Hillside Neighborhood Association such as Promise Lee, Rochelle Taylor, Fannie Lee and Ruth Johnson.

City planning official Lonna Thelen discussed the permit applications submitted to the city for zoning. The Lane Foundation applied for three: PBC (Planned Business Center), a Development Plan (for parking and a playground), and a final plat to determine exact boundaries.

Zach McComsey, CEO of the Lane Foundation, shared plans for the vacant school and addressed the neighborhood's concerns. "The purpose of this campus is to empower nonprofits to serve the community," he stated. He also said he would solicit neighborhood feedback from community members such as Pastor Promise Lee to help keep nonprofits accountable to their intended service.

The Lane Foundation plans to invest $2 million in structural amendments only and will rely on the nonprofits who sign leases to help with building upkeep. The planned retrofits will be applied to the newer building only. Right now all renovations on the older building are at a standstill, as it will cost several million dollars to renovate. The Community Partnership for Childhood Development (CPCD) is the only nonprofit to have officially signed a lease at this time, but The Lane Foundation is looking for more nonprofits to inhabit the space and hopes the community can help in this search.

Nonprofits may occupy space rent-free as long as they are committed to helping the neighborhood long-term and can afford to contribute to building upkeep — $10/square-foot/month, paid annually.

Concerns from residents at the meeting included who will be responsible for additional trash in yards, the dangers of kids roaming freely in the street after school, and services in the building that would attract the homeless. In addition, June Waller with the area's SAAVY Seniors group stated her goal "is to make sure the space is accessible to seniors."

McComsey assured residents that CPCD would have five classrooms for preschoolers in the newer building, leaving the possibility of "free-range" children less likely. Also, a professional property management company will be hired to maintain the grounds. Overall the community seemed receptive — there were no major objections voiced during the meeting.

McComsey stated he "had spoken with 40 to 50 people during this process, including neighborhood stakeholders and residents."

Relevant Word Ministries was chosen as a neutral space to hold the town hall-style meeting and Pastor Lee joked, "he took page right out of my community organizing book ... I am happy that the rebuilding of the community is beginning right here at the church."

Things are looking up for Hillside, and it seems that a lot of resources are focused on this area near downtown. The vision of empowering nonprofits to empower the community may be a saving grace for residents in the area who live below the poverty line.


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