On July 14, City officials met with faculty members, parents, and recreation department staff to envision how the newly decommissioned Prospect Elementary School building might be turned into a multi-purpose community center. Ideas for the project include turning the space into a dog park, a senior center, Oberlin Recreation Department offices, and a Head Start program. City Council will vote on a final decision at the end of September.
After operating since 1887 and 1955 respectively, Prospect and Eastwood Elementary Schools closed this spring. Next fall, their students will move into a newly constructed elementary school next to the high school, a project the Oberlin City Schools has been working on since 2018. Many community members at the session held a vested interest in Prospect continuing to provide a space for young people. Oberlin resident Erica Bigham spent eight summers in Prospect’s Playground Experience summer camp program before applying to join its staff and hopes to see the Recreation Department organize kids’ programs there in the future.
“My relationship with the building, it feels kind of personal, because I feel like I really grew up in this building, especially over the summer,” Bigham said, “My specific hope is that we can make it just a recreational building where we can have our programs for the Recreation Department year-round.”
Melissa Stalnaker, one of Prospect’s previous substitute teachers and librarians, also stressed Oberlin’s need for a space for young people.
“There is not a lot for teens to do in this town,” she said. “There’s The Bridge, [Oberlin Community Technology Center], but it’s very small, and it’s not sufficient for the needs of the teens. And it would be really wonderful to have a teen-friendly space, a space that they can make their own and that they can go to and just feel comfortable in. Because, if you don’t give children something to do, sometimes they find things to do, and that can lead to trouble.”
Other proposed ideas for the space had to do with creating a space for seniors, either a community center or affordable housing for seniors. City Council member Kristen Peterson noted that the senior space would potentially take up the second floor of the building, with access from an elevator. Residents and visiting seniors might be able to interact with a young kids’ space or Head Start program below, following the example of the Kendal Early Learning Center.
At the input session, concerns were expressed that the ceilings contain asbestos, an insulation material that becomes carcinogenic when disturbed. Community members also raised concerns about leaks and uninsulated windows.
City Manager Rob Hillard explained that the City was bringing in engineers to survey the building for potential updates and safety issues for the rest of July. They will also calculate upfront and recurring costs.
“We’re really looking forward to reviewing the data and the notes and just seeing the common themes get evaluated in the facility in terms of cost and safety, making the decision here in the next month or so,” Hillard said.
In 2018, City Council passed a tax levy, which substantially raised residential property taxes for nearly 40 years, to build the consolidated school system that Eastwood and Prospect students will enter this fall. With this expense already on the books, the costs of updating the Prospect building may cause some hesitation.
Another budding debate emerged around the potential to establish the Prospect building’s back field as a dog park. Adding public parks to the City’s west side has long been an interest of some residents, and in the past year, Stalnaker said that dog owners began to let their dogs and kids play in the space every day between 4:30 and 6 p.m.
“It sort of started during the pandemic, and it’s just blossomed since then,” Stalnaker said. “And the word has been spreading, and the dogs have a great time, humans have a great time, and I’d be really sad to see that go. So I’m hoping that there’s a way for them to [continue], even if there were just certain hours.”
However, according to Ian Yarbor, superintendent of the Recreation Department, this isn’t guaranteed to come into fruition. Yarbor explained that letting your dog off the leash on the school property actually violates City law, and he recommended that community members use the dog park located on Splash Zone’s property.
After the building is surveyed for safety and costs this July, community members will be able to weigh in again at City Council meetings in August and September. However, Hillard urges that they contact him directly before then.
“I would suggest that if folks are interested and they want to engage in this conversation, that they engage quickly and contact me so we can talk about their ideas, concerns, questions,” he said. “This is about the right and the wrong and the indifferent, so I’m really interested in the feedback.”