Bringing A Building Back To Life: Clear Waters Life Center In Gonvick, MN

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In the small town of Gonvick, Minnesota, the Clear Waters Life Center has revitalized an old building and, with it, a community. When the schools of Gonvick and Clearbrook were combined in 1992, a new school building opened north of Clearbrook in 2004 to accommodate the influx of students, and the Gonvick School was vacated. Until 2009, it had remained vacant, becoming a semi-demolished, unheated eyesore with no definite future, until the Clear Waters Life Center came along.

Clear Waters Life Center in Gonvick, MN
The Clear Waters Life Center in Gonvick, MN is an abandoned school turned energy-efficient community center.

Clear Waters Life Center (CWLC) is a faith-based non-profit that works to offer support groups, youth programs, counseling services, and job training. It had been looking to expand its programs beyond Clearbrook, MN and needed a place to house vocational training workshops. CWLC saw the abandoned Gonvick School as an opportunity. The non-profit bought the old school building from the school district in June of 2009.

Its first step was to ask the Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program (RETAP) to do an energy analysis of the old building. RETAP is an organization that connects retired professionals to Minnesota businesses, institutions, and communities to provide environmental facility assessments and help with local sustainability projects. A RETAP advisor made a site visit in October and issued a report for the building a month later, and thus launched the CWLC down its path to make the school building functional again.
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To restore the building, CWLC and the City of Gonvick applied for a number of grants, including one from Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) and an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG). In October of 2009, CWLC applied for and received a $4000 CERTs grant that allowed it to conduct a feasibility study to help determine the best way to heat and cool the building. “It really helped us make a decision as to what kind of heating system to purchase,” said CWLC Administrative Director Becky Dorman. The school district had partially demolished the building and removed the old school’s boiler, so a new system was needed. CWLC brought in the engineering firm Martin Mechanical to prepare a report that outlined three energy-efficient heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that could be successfully implemented. After evaluating the options, the CWLC decided to go with a geothermal system.

As the building was being rehabilitated, CWLC realized that it needed to do something with the gym area, which was poorly insulated and could potentially negate the effects of the new HVAC system. “We needed a space to do vocational training in, but we had this big gym that we didn’t need,” explained Dorman. “At the time the gym was the furthest thought from our business plan for the building as it was to be designated community space and we figured we could do that last. When we heard about the (EECBG) grant the City of Gonvick worked with us to apply for the grant to get the gym space ready for community use. So the thing we thought we would be doing last we did first.”

The City of Gonvick received a $97,800 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant to insulate the roof and walls of the gymnasium, which included a new roof. The City of Clearbrook had also benefitted from the EECBG program, as Clearbrook had renovated the gym in its old high school building in a similar way after receiving EECBG funding. However, the Gonvick school project ran into a problem — they struggled to fill out the B3 report that was required in order to receive the grant money. Every EECBG funded project in Minnesota is required to establish a Minnesota B3 Benchmarking account in order to record past utility bills and input new ones once improvements are made. This allows a city to track average total energy use in individual buildings to see how energy efficiency projects affect total energy usage and cost. The issue with the Gonvick site, explained Dorman, was that “the building was closed for 5 years, so there were no readings” that could be used to establish a baseline with which to measure future energy use against. “I did get utility bills for the three years prior to shut down,” said Dorman, “I used those but had to subtract the portion that was torn down to estimate cost for the remaining building which we own. We asked LOTS of questions in the grant writing process and found the people working with the B3 score very helpful.”

The successful gym renovation has made it usable for families in Gonvick. Open gym hours let residents play basketball, ping pong, use free weights, and more. The gym is also available for rent, which gives residents the opportunity to host large events such as family reunions and receptions without having to drive to a facility out of town. Although renovations are not yet complete on the new CWLC Gonvick , it already offers a daycare, a Senior center, a furniture shop, three greenhouses, a community garden, and arts and crafts classes. “We are in a rural community and people can’t afford to drive far,” said Becky Dorman, emphasizing the importance of these new facilities. There were few creative outlets available to residents before the building was renovated. “Now,” she explained, “you can come to one of our three Community Art Studios.”

Already, the City of Gonvick has given its support to the effort. “We have found the community to be excited to see us making good use of their school building,” wrote CWLC Co-Director Darien Northup. “It will not only provide employment opportunities but will also draw from a greater region to use our facility and to shop in Gonvick.” In this way, the successful renovation of the old Gonvick school has meant more than the restoration of a local building. It has allowed the town to offer new resources to its residents, in addition to turning a building that was once a burden into a functional, energy-efficient landmark.

About the Local Government Energy Action Series:

Local Government Energy ActionThis year-long effort tells the stories of nearly 50 Minnesota municipalities, counties, and schools and the tangible results of their energy-saving efforts, in order to inspire others to take their own actions. See all stories in this series >>

Local Government Energy Action is brought to you by the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources.

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