BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Once a K-12 school filled with the sounds of chalkboard scribbles and fidgeting children, the Monclova Community Center of today is alive with the sounds of dancing feet, strumming guitars, boisterous laughter and cherished wedding vows.
Built in 1912 and used as a school until 1974, the building was dormant until 1997, when a group of visionary residents pooled together some funds and volunteers to renovate it into a community gathering space. Monclova Historical Foundation (MHF) president Karen Lemle, who along with her husband Roger has been involved over the years, believes the center has achieved that goal.
“It has been much more successful – beyond what I ever imagined. It’s a viable, vibrant place and a great asset to the community,” Lemle said. “To me, it stands for the community and what Monclova was and what it could be.”
She and fellow board member Pat Dymarkowski credit Jennifer Reinhart, who became the center’s first full-time director in 2014, as a major force behind the success of the center. Reinhart works with long-term renters of rooms in the East Wing, books daily and hourly rentals in the West Wing, organizes events for the community and manages the day-to-day operation of the facility.
“Mary Kay, our first director, was busy working 20 hours a week, but it’s night and day having someone like Jen working 40 hours a week. She’s really good at what she does,” Dymarkowski said.
The East Wing
When Kristin Reichardt Rummell and Slava Polubnev decided to start a new dance studio, the professional ballroom dancers began looking for a place large enough to invite other artists. Then, Rummell heard about the Monclova Community Center, and she fell in love with the second-floor classroom’s high ceilings, tall windows and wooden floors that are perfect for dancing. In October 2019, Rummell and Polubnev opened Dance Fam Studio.
“I wanted a building with space for artists. Then, I found it all here,” Rummell said. “What I like most is the idea of creative collaboration.”
Down the hall, Lauren Sells’ Step by Step Dance studio has been a tenant since 2008, expanding into three rooms. Tracy Disbrow Photography is on the ground floor, along with the Center for Conscious Living and a Mary Kay studio and training center.
When an artist vacated a first-floor room recently, Reinhart offered it for daily or hourly rent and found a quick response, including a homeschool group that plans to meet every Wednesday.
When John Michael Durback was looking for space to give guitar and piano lessons, the East Wing was full, so he rents the West Wing Principal’s Office, which also houses many of the township’s historic books, photos and artifacts.
The West Wing
The Schaller Banquet Hall, with space for 162 guests, air conditioning and hardwood floors, turned out to be the answer for newlyweds Beth Crandall and George Asay. The Michigan couple married outdoors in front of the barn behind the community center, stopped for photos in the courtyard and in front of the historic post office, and then headed inside for the reception.
“It was everything I wanted,” said Beth, noting that June 12 was hot and humid, so being able to usher guests inside for the rest of the evening was ideal.
The historic feel, the indoor and outdoor amenities, the ability to bring her own caterer and bartender – and all for very reasonable prices – sold Beth on holding the wedding at the center.
“One selling point is that you can bring your own food or shop around for a good caterer,” said Reinhart, who has 200 weddings booked in 2021 and 10 on the books for 2022. She’ll see couples choose everything from taco bars and BBQ to high-end meals catered in during these weddings.
“Every time there’s a wedding, that’s 162 people in here who have not been here before,” she said. “Then, they book space for their events. It’s definitely getting a lot busier.”
That means an uptick in rentals by HOA groups and community organizations, as well as baby showers and bridal parties, business meetings and training sessions. Every Tuesday, the center hosts a euchre and cards gathering for senior citizens.
As he began planning the return of the popular Trivia Nights, Dymarkowski could see that the center was filling up quickly.
“I couldn’t find an open Friday night until November 15,” he said.
When Dymarkowski moved to the township in the early 2000s, he saw a sign in front of the center asking for volunteers for a haunted house.
“Halloween is my favorite holiday,” he said. “It was a fun way to meet people, and I got sucked in from there. I ended up being on the board off and on.”
Since then, Dymarkow-ski has dressed up in ghoulish outfits for several events. One year, he lingered in the historic post office which, he points out, volunteers moved, brick by brick, from down the road to reassemble in its current location next to the community center.
While Dymarkowski plans history lectures and the Trivia Night, Reinhart organizes events that draw in plenty of children, including the Easter egg hunt, Santa visits and the upcoming outdoor Trunk or Treat on Wednesday, October 20.
Over the years, the center has hosted some other unusual events, such as the 2016 filming of campy horror comedy Pi Day Die Day, or the ghost hunters who spent the evening roaming the halls with special equipment and claim to have spoken with Tina, a young student from decades ago, who still roams the halls.
Longtime volunteer Bob Conley offered a wry smile as he and Reinhart talked about ghosts in the community center. While neither believes in ghosts, they talk about a time when a resident drove by in the wee hours of the morning and reported seeing someone standing in the window. The deputy who entered the building to investigate found no one.
Conley, a Waterside resident, was attending a homecoming festival in downtown Monclova in 2002 when he got to chatting with a few costumed MHF volunteers. In the years since, he’s organized book sales and helped at events and fundraisers, serving on the MHF board several times.
“All this wouldn’t be taking place if it weren’t for the people who came here in the ’90s and saved it,” Conley said of the center’s growing popularity.
“This is our center,” Conley said, noting that Monclova residents don’t have a place to gather except Freeze Daddy’s in the summer or at school events if they have kids.
While Reinhart and custodian Sierra Turner keep the center going, volunteers are a constant need: for indoor repairs and light maintenance, gardening and working at special community events.
Many of the early volunteers who were dedicated to boosting the community center have gotten older or passed on, and younger volunteers are needed.
Brian Craig, a township trustee and longtime member of the MHF, and Lemle both mention the late Bill Strayer, who championed for ongoing renovations and upkeep to the historic building.
Financial support is also needed to fund events that benefit the community, Dymarkowski said. Anthony Wayne Tire and Auto Repair and The Andersons have been reliable sponsors, but others are needed in order to continue offering community programs, he said.
With last year’s pandemic restrictions, the center had one month with no bookings at all, yet it’s financially almost break-even. The building, owned by the township, is leased to the MHF for $1.00 per year for 50 years, and the township financially supports the center in some way each year.
Craig, who has served as trustee for 16 years, said the township commissioned a study by the Buehrer Group to prioritize projects within the building. Using this study as a guide, the township has funded the installation of new furnaces and air conditioning units, as well as the renovation of restrooms. Further restroom renovations are on the horizon.
Also planned is a 25th anniversary celebration in October 2022, in which the MHF will recognize those who were involved in bringing the old school back to life.
For the Lemles, who moved to the township 26 years ago, the project was a way to meet great people who have remained a part of their lives.
When the center first opened, Karen remembers sitting outside in her car and listening to kids sing inside the building as they practiced for a musical. The sound was literally music to her ears.
“This is what we wanted – for people to come and use it,” she said.