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SJSD may move to purchase Downtown YMCA

Key leaders among the St. Joseph School District Board of Education affirmed strong interest in buying the Downtown YMCA on Monday.

Gathering at the district headquarters, the school board’s Finance Committee, including Board President Tami Pasley and Finance Chair Rick Gilmore, stated the merits of a YMCA purchase are clear to them at this time.

In the event of a purchase, the YMCA would not close as scheduled on Thursday, Oct. 1. Instead, it would continue to operate as a shared facility owned by the school district and rented by the YMCA for certain purposes, such as therapeutic exercise sessions in the heated swimming pool. The district would otherwise turn the YMCA to its own ends. Gilmore said the YMCA basketball court would, for example, be used as an after-school recreation space for younger students.

Gilmore said he plans a tour on Wednesday morning at the building, 315 S. 6th St.

“We’ve got the crews with the school district to keep it clean and really get it nice,” he said. “And, I think with a minimal expense, we could bring it up to speed and really have a good facility.”

Ron Hook, appearing in his capacity as chair of the local YMCA Board of Directors, told the finance committee to expect an asking price of approximately $450,000. Committee members agreed this would be well below the building’s value in ordinary circumstances; however, to-be-determined amounts would have to be spent on repairs. The building is down to one functional boiler, for example. YMCA of St. Joseph CEO Sue White said it remains too early to know the building’s correct price.

“The important thing to realize is, we’ve sought community partnerships probably since the inception of the Y,” she said. “It’s about collaboration in the community. This is one thing that could strengthen our direction in the future.”

Following an Aug. 15 confirmation of significant mold contamination at the Freshman Annex of Central High School, the district set aside up to $2.5 million to clean and renovate the annex. The project ultimately came in at under $2 million, but the cost of replacing contaminated items has yet to be expended.

District leaders reviewed how this emergency expenditure, only a fraction of which is likely to be covered by insurance, leaves school leaders with little option but to plan for deficit spending in the near future. Despite this state of affairs, Gilmore said, a YMCA purchase would make sense because the district expects to save significant health insurance costs for the indefinite future because acquiring the YMCA would boost employee wellness.

“We could save some money, that’s for sure,” Gilmore said.

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Downtown stoplights to be removed

All but two stoplights in downtown St. Joseph will be removed within a year following a city council vote.

Each intersection currently governed by a traffic signal, except Jules and 10th streets and Francis and Ninth streets, will become controlled by stop signs.

"This has been a conversation that quite a number of downtown business owners have have had over the last several years," Brian Myers, a city councilman, said. "Anything we can do to improve traffic flow and safety, those are our objectives."

Andy Clements, St. Joseph's public works director, said the removals wouldn't begin for at least a week. Myers told News-Press NOW that he's only heard from one downtown constituent who is in opposition to the removals. 

According to St Joseph Traffic Commission meeting minutes reviewed by News-Press NOW, Clements told the commission that the removals would be done in phases over a one-year period.

Madison Davis, a city councilman and sponsor of the ordinance, didn't respond to a request for comment. Mayor Bill McMurray told News-Press NOW in an email that the council was following the recommendation set forth by the lower commission. 

The discussion on whether to remove traffic signals dates back to at least 2019, when the Traffic Commission was presented with a private study that recommended removal of the majority of lights.

Following the commission's vote and recommendation, the City Council unanimously passed a final ordinance on Sept. 8. Some of the intersections will become a four-way stop, while others will only have two stop signs.

"The traffic volumes and the turning movements at the intersections are low enough where they do not warrant traffic signals to be installed,” Assistant Director of Public Works Brady McKinley previously said.

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Coffee shops see people coming back through doors

Local coffee shops are used to seeing people relax and take advantage of the calming environment inside, and despite COVID-19 impacting business operations groups are still coming in.

Hazel’s Coffee and Roasting Company recently moved to a new location. Owner Heather Mitchell didn’t know what to expect, but she said since school started back up more students have been returning to the shop.

“We have groups of them come in and meet us at the door when we open and will spend two to three hours studying and mingling with others,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell took ownership of the business at the start of the pandemic and was worried what the future of the coffee shop would be.

“We’re so happy that people enjoy our space and it is very welcoming and we still have a quiet little area that we keep the lights off for people that want that,” Mitchell said.

The shop continues to see its regulars coming in for multiple hours a day and has started to see residents who are working from home taking advantage of their space.

“Groups call and reserve our quiet area and they come and host their meetings or study sessions or they’re playing games there all day and we welcome that,” Mitchell said.

With the addition of a drive-thru, customers also have the ability to still grab their coffee without getting out of their car.

Andrew Montee, owner of Mokaska Coffee Company, took the shutdown period as a time to improve the shop’s outdoor seating to increase space for customers.

“It’s a nice area for people to come and space out a little bit and still be able to get out of the house,” Montee said.

Montee is thankful the community is continuing to come in and use the space for work or school and still be safe.

“We are requiring masks when people come inside and order and then they can spread out in our outdoor space,” Montee said.

Since more people are working from home, Montee said the type of people spending time in the shop has changed and they’ve adapted to provide a productive work environment area.

Montee understands that some residents still are hesitant to go into businesses, which is why he is strongly in favor of the city taking protective measures and making a mask mandate.

“The most important thing is safety, and it might hurt and might be hard right now to take some steps that might hurt the business but it would be worse so in the long term if we were forced to shut down again,” Montee said.

Mitchell and Montee expect to continue seeing a steady increase of business into the fall, which are typically the busiest months for coffee shops.