"I'm walking on air," says Cindy Cone, a member of the volunteer committee helping to conceptualize a long-sought performing arts auditorium at Storm Lake High School. "This is so thrilling!"
Voters last week raised the curtain on the auditorium proposal, as well as renovation/expansion of the high school.
All three necessary funding measures to build the $17.5 million project were approved, passing in every voting precinct, to allow for a mixture of future SILO/SAVE one-cent sales tax through 2029 and an increased and extended Physical Plant and Equipment property tax levy though 2026 to pay off the project.
The sales tax ballot question passed 665 to 323 (67.3 percent voting yes). This question impacts how the revenue will be used; the penny tax would be collected regardless. The PPEL tax increase ballot question passed 585-405 (59.09 percent) and extending the PPEL taxation period to 2026 passed 588-399 (59.57 percent.)
Plans currently call for a 750-seat auditorium with a 50x50-feet stage opening to accommodate the large number of students who participate in music, as well as drama and speech. There is discussion of designing a lobby that could double as a gallery to display student visual art exhibits, and possibly also serve jointly as a box office for the gym. The auditorium is projected to be added to the front side of the building.
In recent meetings, committee and school officials have said they are open to having the facility used by the community as often as possible for events and to bring in professional entertainment events. Officials said it would also be available to rent for small fees for private events and could be utilized by St. Mary's performances.
The project also allows for extensive renovation of the high school, which was designed in the 1960s for a time when the school hosted only three grades and had fewer curriculum requirements and student organizations. Under the current plan, the school would get a separate freshmen area, an auxiliary gym, an expanded library/media center, expanded science labs, new classroom space with updates to existing classrooms, and improved heating/cooling and electrical systems.
With the voter approval, the school district hopes to put the project out for bids early next summer and begin construction work in August 2013.
"This is a good day for Storm Lake," longtime board of education member Ed McKenna said after the voting results were announced. "We are very thankful that people looked at this opportunity and put the kids first. I think the voters realized that this will answer the needs of our students now and looking well into the future."
McKenna said that the need for an auditorium was being discussed long before he came onto the board 17 years ago. Many people wanted to vote in such a project back when the district was planning a bond issue election to build the elementary school, but the difficult decision was made to set the project aside then to help ensure that the bond funding for the school could be passed.
Architects DLR Group, based in Des Moines, were brought into the project recently, and it will be several months before the full plans, specifications and drawings will be completed. McKenna said he realizes that it required a leap of faith for the voters to approve the funding without finished plans in front of them.
"We should be really happy with the response and the fact that we got about 60 percent approval" without having an exact plan to show, McKenna said. The district chose to determine what it could afford to spend and tailor a project to fall within that budget, he said, rather than taking a pretty drawing of a building to voters without a solid idea of what construction costs would be, he said.
Last weekend, trepresentatives of the district and volunteers traveled to Ankeny, Nevada and Urbandale to re-visit school auditoriums that have recently been built from designs by DLR.
"The Ankeny facility was built for $4.5 to $5 million and is the same size we are looking at and includes a lot of the things our committee wants to see in an auditorium," McKenna said. "The district there is really happy with the project. That makes us feel even more confident that we can do something really good within the budget that we have - we're in the ballgame."
One person remarked on seeing that facility, "If we could pick it up and move this to Storm Lake, we would." It was estimated that with inflation, such a project could be done for $5-$6 million, well below the $9 million that had been estimated under a previous architecture firm.
District officials will also be happy to be able to retire the former South Elementary building, which has been kept in use in recent years only for occasional use of the auditorium and gym. "We're expending a good bit of money just to maintain an empty school. With the high school project, we will no longer have to do that, and we'll be able to use the money we've put into South in other places that it is needed," McKenna said.
Perhaps first on that list is the former East School, which has been retained as an early childhood education center for the district, and could use some upgrades, the school board chairperson said.
Storm Lake City officials were watching the election results closely as well. They have proposed taking over old South Elementary for an ambitious project that includes a fitness center, a business incubation center, elements of a community center, and a new home for Witter Gallery - which in turn would free up space needed for the library which currently shared a footprint with the art gallery, according to City Manager Jim Patrick.
"We've had to put South on the back burner until the school district doesn't need it anymore," Patrick said. "We think it would be an important project."
No cost estimate or funding plan for the South makeover has yet been formalized. The City hopes to attract some grant funds, first working to stabilize the old building, then creating the new elements probably over phases. It is likely that a bond issue will need to be approved at some point, according to Patrick.
Meanwhile, Cone said, the passing of the funding measure for the high school projects on Tuesday marks the beginning of "a brand new era" for students in the school district. "They will get even better opportunities theaterwise, speechwise, musicwise, and hopefully this will be a great step of progress for the community as well. It should help grow Storm Lake."
Music Boosters president Jerry Johnson said that the project will finally give fine arts students "a home of their own" instead of consigning them to a back room or gymnasium. The arts programs goal should be that every student who comes into the school should have an opportunity to stand on the stage in some format or another.
For Superintendent Carl Turner, who has concentrated in recent weeks on getting information on the proposal and funding mechanisms to the public, "now the real work begins."
"We know our budget, now we have to pull all the pieces together into a really good plan, and carry out the vision that we promised to the voters."