Small Saskatchewan community pulls together to find new uses

The smell of fresh paint greets visitors as they walk through the front doors. With hallways in cranberry red and sandy taupe and rooms in mushroom brown and sage green, this building does not bear any resemblance to its former life.

A wrought-iron wall clock in the hall, potted plants sprinkled throughout the interior and an heirloom screen door on the entrance to the future bakery are signs that Odessa School has undergone a vast transformation.

“This project has really pulled our town together and has gotten us working as a group,” says Mayor Larry Lockert. “We have people who are coming out to things and who are interested in this project who really never got involved before.”

And while the Odessa School is now a symbol of hope and growth for this small Saskatchewan town of 250 residents, it wasn’t always this way.

“When they decided to close the school in 2006 it was just devastating,” says Lockert, explaining that the school’s K-8 population had dropped to around 50 students. “You start thinking that your town is going to die if you don’t have a school and everybody wants to hang on to what they have.”

For several years, Lockert says the town was reeling from the closure decision and was in a standstill mode in terms of economic development. But when the Odessa School building was put up for tender by the Prairie Valley School Division in 2009, there was a strong feeling in the community that the school needed to be preserved in some form.

“A part of it was the sentimental value of the building itself, and part of it was that we really liked the idea of using the school as a central meeting place for the community.”

With a town meeting revealing a strong desire to have the school owned by the Village of Odessa, and with many ideas for the classroom spaces swirling in the minds of Odessa residents, the building was purchased for approximately $5,000.

Lockert says he was glad to see the school in the hands of the community, but he was also concerned about the work that lay ahead.

“I knew it was going to be a big row to hoe — it was that sense of now the work is going to begin.”

The first business to move into the school was the Village of Odessa office, followed by the community’s SGI licence issuer, Qu’Appelle Agencies. Community groups such as the Odessa Dance Club relocated to the school as well, with recreational clubs like a floor hockey group and women’s volleyball league making use of the gymnasium.

It wasn’t long before plans for a privately owned bakery and coffee shop were being made, and plans for a community heritage room were coming together.

“This shows that we still care about our town, even without a school,” says Vivian Glas, one of the members of the community’s Heritage Room committee. “I’m hoping that our work here is going to help with building our town and keeping it here.”

With plans for a new residential subdivision in the works, and more plans for the school (seniors’ centre, youth room and spaces for a nurse practitioner and massage therapist), Lockert says a sense of hope has returned to his community.

“For a number of years it was just a standstill, but now that we have some activity and some progress being made, it has given us a bit of a boost,” says the Odessa mayor. “We’re hoping that 10 years down the road we have another 20 residents in town, we have more businesses opening and we have more programs to offer our community members.”

Lockert says the school project is a tribute to Odessa’s residents who have spent over 650 hours of volunteer time planning, renovating and painting in order to transform the school into a community meeting place.

While the Village of Odessa has taken on a majority of the school’s $31,000 annual operating expenses, rental fees and grants have contributed over $13,000 to defray the annual cost of operating the former school. With more groups wanting to use the space all of the time, Lockert hopes that down the road, the school project will pay for itself.

But for now, the annual operating costs are covered by the village, which is thrilled to have the Odessa School as a central feature of its community once again.

“I think the secret to success is the effort and spirit in the community,” says Lockert. “Right from the beginning, our community had the attitude that we’ll pitch in and we’ll get it done.”

For more information, contact the Odessa Village office at (306) 957-2020.

Christalee Froese writes from Montmartre, Saskatchewan

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Christalee Froese writes from Montmartre, Sask.

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