Housing Works hosts the grand opening of the new Ochoco School Crossing on Monday

JASON CHANEY - Housing Works leaders, elected officials and other people involved in the Ochoco School Crossing project officially open the housing complex with a ribbon-cutting.

The last time people spent a significant amount of time in the Ochoco Elementary School building, kids and teachers were bidding the facility farewell.

Buses pulled away and instructors and school leaders packed up their belongings and exited the doors, perhaps assuming they would be the last people to inhabit the 70-year-old structure.

Monday afternoon, the building was full once more and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Housing Works has finally unveiled its new Ochoco School Crossing housing complex.

The occasion was greeted with considerable fanfare, complete with a ribbon cutting, a couple cakes and a list of guest speakers that included such elected officials as Oregon Sen. Dennis Linthicum and Rep. Mike McLane.

People were given the opportunity to wander the halls and peek into the facility's community rooms, offices and even a few select housing units, already inhabited by families.

What once were old classrooms with exposed pipes, dozens of desks and educational décor had become new apartments with freshly painted sheetrock walls, modern electrical fixtures and kitchens with new appliances and cabinetry. Old schoolhouse hallway walls now featured historical photos honoring the school's past and massive orange unit numbers alongside each of the 29 apartment doors.

The grand opening began in the school's gymnasium, one of the only spaces in the school that has gone essentially untouched since the renovation began last year. The doorways leading to what used to be the main office and primary school entrance have been walled shut, but the bleachers that the capacity crowd occupied looked the same as they did the last day of school in 2015. The stage and curtain, and the basketball hoops that kids utilized through the years stood preserved like a time capsule. And at the northwest corner of the gym, a placard reading "Ms. Sutherlin, fifth grade" is still attached to the wall, a remnant from when students gathered by class in the space each morning.

"It's exciting with the history that has taken place here to think about the future of this site," said Michael Hinton, Housing Works Board Chair, as he kicked off the grand opening.

He marveled at the crowd of roughly 200 who showed up and stressed that Ochoco School Crossing would be more than a housing complex, it would be a location for future recreation and education.

"The gym will be run by the parks and recreation district," he said, adding that the site provides a space for Head Start and YouthBuild Oregon as well as an outdoor park and an orchard and garden.

Laura Craska Cooper, the Housing Works board's vice chair, later added that the complex will ultimately be a community.

"We want to create communities that are a safe environment for people to live, grow and raise their families," she said.

Other speakers praised the way the new facility would help put a dent in what has been a well-publicized affordable housing shortage in the Crook County and throughout the state. Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe noted that about 170 families applied for the 29 housing units available.

"This celebration could not come at a better time," Sarah DeVries, a member of the Housing Stability Council, told the crowd. "Our state and Central Oregon continues to experience an unprecedented housing crisis, leaving many without stable and safe housing."

The Housing Stability Council was credited by Hinton for helping authorize the state funding necessary to make the Ochoco School Crossing complex a reality, and he later introduced Wells Fargo's Community Lending and Investment Senior Vice President Nelda Scott Newton.

She told the audience how Wells Fargo has provided financing for many different housing projects and invested about $13 million in construction financing for the Ochoco project.

Scott Cooper, who currently chairs the Crook County School Board and serves as NeighborImpact's executive director, spent his time at the podium recalling the moments that resulted in Housing Works choosing Ochoco Elementary as its renovation site. He stressed his personal connection to the school — his father was in its first class and his daughter was in one of the last — and how he didn't want to see the building get bulldozed.

After showing Tom Kemper, Housing Works' former executive director and the organization's real estate and facilities director, the abandoned Pioneer Memorial Hospital site, and detecting a reluctance to renovate the 92,000 square foot building, he decided to offer the school as another option.

The two men loved it right away, Cooper recalls, seeing multiple ways they could use the building.

"They saw the vision," he said.

It didn't take long after seeing that vision for Kemper to reach out to people like Duane Garner, the executive director of Crook County Parks and Recreation District. Garner remembers Kemper meeting him for lunch and asking him if he had any need for or interest in the school's gymnasium. Garner was immediately intrigued and excited.

"It is hard to find a room in this little community to have sporting programs and activities for adults and youth," he told the audience.

Garner went on to say that the gym would soon provide room for youth and adult basketball programs, various day camps, community dances, and even open gym for people who want to just stop by and play ball.

"This is an exciting day for us," he said. "This is going to be a fun-filled place from now on."

Hinton agreed, not only expressing excitement about the new use for the old gymnasium but for the new use for the entire old building.

"We sit at the crossroads of a glorious, wonderful past and a bright, bright future," he said.

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