As the Fort Osage School District worked to pass a bond issue in 2017 for capital improvements, Superintendent Jason Snodgrass often faced questions about what the district would do with the Early Childhood Center building on U.S. 24 that it sought to replace.
The answer came not just from the district but from two wide-reaching community institutions.
The former early childhood education building has been renovated, and both the Mid-Continent Public Library and the Community Services League will soon be offering some services. Library patrons will have access to MCPL's full collections, just like any other branch in the system, and CSL will have a food pantry open initially one day a week.
Fort Osage retains ownership, and the partner organizations see the 5,000-square foot structure at U.S. 24 and Viking Drive as a chance to provide easier access to citizens in the neighborhoods east of Missouri 291 and around U.S. 24 – an area they believe had been underserved.
Snodgrass calls it a “community betterment project.”
“What I'm excited about is renovating that building, and really, the families in our district will be able to use that facility,” he said. “We have hundreds of families within walking distance there.
“They'll have internet access, the summer reading program, be able to check out books, and the food pantry; to have that is really exciting to me.”
Fort Osage did pass the bond issue, allowing for the new Woodland Early Childhood Center next to Elm Grove Elementary. But what to do with the facility the district had outgrown.
“I kept telling people, 'There will be a use for it, I just don't know what the best will be now,'” Snodgrass said. “We would like to reutilize it for a good purpose for families in our district. We could've entertained selling, but that's not what we wanted to do.”
Snodgrass then pitched an idea to Steve Potter and Doug Cowan, the CEOs of Mid-Continent and CSL respectively.
Mid-Continent had passed a capital improvements levy in 2016, and one of many plans was to create a third branch somewhere in Independence.
“Our projections indicated eastern Independence,” Potter said, adding that the nearby Hawthorne Place Apartments identified as a particular at-risk area for library services. The nearest Mid-Continent branch otherwise is at U.S. 24 and Spring Street near the Truman Library – almost four miles away.
“We went and toured the building and realized could be an interesting opportunity,” Potter said “We liked the idea of being able to create some kind of library service to help an at-risk area.”
The three sides have three-year memorandum of understanding in place.
“We're doing a trial location to see how the area would be receptive, to get us an idea of if we could go out on 24 or down toward U.S. 40,” said Susan Wray, Mid-Continent assistant director. “Public transportation isn't wonderful in that area, and this is an opportunity to serve the community in that area.”
The Community Services League keeps an office in the Hawthorne complex to offer services there, but otherwise its next-nearest location is the headquarters near the Square.
“The way we describe our services is neighborhood-based,” Cowan said. “We're typically in buildings that are very accessible, and that's what we like about his. Generally in the northeast there's not a lot of services, and we know that access is a big deal to families.”
CSL will just have the food pantry, which will be staffed by volunteers from the congregation at nearby Village Heights Community of Christ – a “unique partnership” in itself, as well, Cowan said. It can also provide referrals for other basic needs where CSL helps, such as housing, employment and financial programming.
“They'll provide the staffing, assess demand and see if it fits with neighborhood,” he said.
Mid-Continent will occupy most of the space with its bookshelves, computers and small collaboration rooms. Potter said there won't be a large amount of material on hand for adults, but otherwise will be a standard small library.
“We'll have early learning and children's services, making sure it's a good outlet to participate in summer reading,” Potter said. “We want students to avoid that summer slide, and they return to school in much better position to learn.”
The food pantry has been partially stocked by donations from Comcast employees, dozens of whom helped with painting and exterior for a company volunteer day earlier this month. Mid-Continent handled much of the interior work at little cost thanks to its existing capital improvements.
“JE Dunn was able to roll right into – economy of scale,” Potter said.
Fort Osage will maintain the grounds, which Snodgrass said should be a bare minimum cost using staff that does work at nearby Elm Grove Elementary.
“I've heard nothing but positives in regard to this,” he said. “We kind of announced in the beginning of January that thought this is what we would do with it, all three boards have approved it, and it was full steam ahead. It's really taken on a life of its own.
“Collaborating with these two organizations, and they also had a vision of their programs, I think we all just utilized our strengths. The value of providing these services to families in our district far outweighs the amount we would've received from selling the building.”