State of the Square: Old Elementary building’s future discussed at annual meeting

South Square, formerly the St. Ansgar Public School Building. (EJ file photo)

By Alex Schmidt

Our old brick building at the same time is both eighty years old and just one year into a new journey, but has less than twelve months to be prove it’s worth our while.

At their first annual meeting held last Sunday, the board of the newly renamed “South Square Collective”, made up of Ashley DeMaris, Tyler McKinley, and Amanda Kimber, led a conversation among the more than 60 attendees in the old elementary gymnasium, who all came because they had a vested interest in the building and were inspired to give South Square a sense of purpose and pride for the community.

The board reported at the meeting on a year looking back at a gargantuan project that has remained gargantuan a year later, but the usefulness of the building is paying off, and potential and dedication towards the project in the community is immensely positive.

“We’re giving you as realistic a view as possible,” McKinley said in his opening remarks. “If this project is not going well, we’ll be the first ones to say it, because we don’t want the community to experience an unresolved failure.”

The board (and, in effect the community) needs to decide on a timeline of 12 months whether or not the community has repurposed the school building successfully in order to keep the building from being demolished with funds provided through the 28E agreement made between the city and school board, providing $125,000 for demolition costs should the building be abandoned for six months prior to the end of the agreement by October 1, 2019. The Iowa DNR Demolition Grant is also only available for buildings that have been abandoned for six months, thus creating the deadline of January 2019 as the “go/no go” date to deciding whether or not to continue with the project.

The board shared that the total expenses of around $39,000 is -$1,564 slightly under budget although that number is representing many one time costs, architect’s report, etc. and including $10,000 in grants, paint, window inserts, food warmer for commercial kitchen, and miscellaneous upkeep and custodial costs.

The 32,000 square foot building at 202 South Washington Street in St. Ansgar has for almost one year been inhabited by the nonprofit organization 501(c)3 originally known as the St. Ansgar Historic School Project, but now, in a nod to the new life and the old that inhabits the space by being known as South Square Collective.

The establishment at the meeting of events, cleaning and upkeep committees will greatly help the administration of the building, and the board will now be holding short informative board meetings to keep the committees informed about events, after monthly Bingo.

More than fifty events have been hosted in many different rooms of the building in the past year, Graduation Receptions, Chamber Plant Swap, Group Rummage Sales, Private Family Events, Chamber Horticulture Fair,  Police Training,  4-H Basketball Tournament,  Birthday Parties,  Bridal Showers,  School Board Voting,  Creative Arts Gallery,  Mitchell County Republican Dinner,  Community Dances,  Girl Scouts Meetings,  Class Reunions,  Funeral Luncheons, Stained Glass Art Classes, General Election, Murder Mystery Dinner Fundraiser for START, South Square Steppers Walking Group,  Spooktacular City Park Playground Fundraiser, Clausen Colony Education Center,  Massage Therapy Continued Education Class, City Council/Mayor Candidate Forum, Bible Study, Missionary Reception, Shopping with Santa, Private Family Holiday Gatherings,  Kofoot Cancer Benefit, Upcoming Chamber Sponsored Bike Rodeo New Year’s Eve CST Alumni Theater Program, Un/wine/d Art Class, Sip, Sort, Scan. The building is home to a dance studio for the local Just for Kix, a youth wrestling room, a bicycle repair shop, a private woodworking shop, an education room, a working art studio, and a community art gallery.

South Square has been used for a number of different events in the last year. EJ Photo/Alex Schmidt

A Personal journey:

I learned my fair share of lessons here between the years of 1995 and 2004, when I attended St. Ansgar Elementary in what was then the K-4 building for the school district. The building, built in 1928, had served as the K-12 building for the small Iowa district from the 20s up until 1959 when the new high school was built and the building housed the elementary until its closure in 2015, the year I had moved back into St. Ansgar after some years away at college and with friends in Nashville, Tennessee.

I’m learning my fair share of lessons here again, one of which is that not only this building carries the potential to be repurposed and have something to contribute, but I do as well, and I dedicated myself to utilizing this building as a canvas for how I can foster my own creativity and help inspire the creativity of others.

I’m typing this currently from in what is now my studio/office in room 201 of South Square, but in it’s former life to me, and many students, this room was the school library: the home and haven for books and their avid readers. Kids  like me; who could be found on the playground not screwballing around on the jungle gym but under the shade of the big tree, thumbing through the pages of a book that was just checked out from the library and getting lost in the story and trying to get another chapter in before class starts back up again.

My favorite book was always the world almanac, and I loved to read the Enterprise Journal with my grandpa. My birth was announced in this paper in 1993 and I appeared on the cover when I was three years old and on Santa Claus’ lap at the St. Ansgar State Bank during Christmas 1997.

Now I find myself writing for the newspaper and volunteering hours at the building which used to be my elementary school; sweeping and mopping the floors after events, hauling my sound equipment or the odd piece of furniture endlessly up and down the stairwells.

The arrival of the Cedar Summer Stock Theater inspired me to take the job as drama director at the high school, as I loved to use the performance space when I was a senior for the performance of “Twelve Angry Jurors”.

I’ve found a second family here at South Square, and, being the family affair that this place already is, have brought on my mother to the fun as well, as she serves as the cook for the Cedar Summer Stock Theater, where I served as voiceover announcer and guest instrumentalist for a select few performances at the Cedar River Complex last summer, (in addition to giving tours of the building, keeping the toilet paper filled, some other light trash taking and the occasional jam session or 30 second dance party in the gym during a rehearsal break.

In addition to welcoming the theater company back, my mom and I will be playing parts in the establishment of a coffee shop this summer in room 101, already the designated “have coffee and hangout” room of the building. I will also be offering myself as emcee to our ‘Fourth Thursdays’ open mic night, our first scheduled for January 25th, with sign up starting at 7:00 and performances from 7:30 until 9:30 PM.

My creative space at the building has served for the last year as equal parts art workshop, my writing and recording studio and office space, and I am encouraged in the year to come by the passionate support I see in everyone who wants to see the building succeed. I’m extending an open invitation to anyone who wishes to visit the recording studio for an interview or a story idea, send me an email or call/leave a message at the EJ office and I will try my very best to get in touch with you in a timely fashion to help answer your questions or offer help in any way I can.

For all other South Square questions, you can watch the live stream of the meeting at South Square’s Facebook page, and visit their website

This building has less than twelve months to be proven to be worth our while, and as a source of inspiration to me, I hope enough people in the community can agree enough to keep that brick and mortar feeding a purpose to us for many years to come.



  1. Tom Duenow on January 19, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for all you do to preserve our roots!
    The building brings back memories of walking to the football field from the bowels of the school, participating in the first St. Ansgar wrestling team and practicing with Mr. Dunn, learning to leave it all on the football field for coach Stilwell, admiring the awesome trophies in the cases from years past, looking forward to Grandma Runch’s noon meal and all of the great teachers and on and on!
    Best of luck in preserving this great old building.

  2. Michael Esdohr on January 20, 2018 at 12:19 am

    Always good to see you buzzing around South Square from time to time. Keep up the good work.

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