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With a beaming smile, he proudly opened each office door as if seeing the building for the first time.
While giving a tour of the newly-renovated Educational Service Unit 8 in Neligh, administrator Bill Mowinkel couldn’t hide his excitement on Monday afternoon. From an upstairs window, Mowinkel gazed out to the south.
“One of the neatest things from here, I thought, is you can see all the way to the river,” he said. “And the red Old Mill matches our red siding and the ESU sign downstairs, so we tied it into the community.”
Making his way to the top floor—what used to be an old storage room with a dark brown painted floor—Mowinkel’s enthusiasm increases with each step.
“That’s a 120-year-old floor,” he said. “Bob Rotherham refinished that. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The room now boasts refinished fir wood floors and tin ceilings, along with the newly-added cubicles for itinerant staff members and offices for the special education department.
“These are the original tin ceilings,” Mowinkel said. “This whole area is historic.”
Keeping history alive, he said they decided to enclose the metal stairs that were previously on the outside of the building.
“Jack Conger told me, ‘Don’t tear down the steel steps,’ ” Mowinkel said. “Jack said he and his friends used to sit on these back in the 40s. We just enclosed them. So, he’ll be happy to know they are still here, the original ones.”
He said while they kept some of the historic elements of the building, they also made many new improvements and added technology.
“That room that’s really unique — that’s all staff-designed,” Mowinkel said. “It’s called a flex-learning lab. There’s a sound booth in there for recording their Wednesday webinars.”
He and the ESU 8 staff members are excited about the newly-renovated space, he said.
“I’m tickled to death with it,” Mowinkel said. “Our staff is just ecstatic. Every one of them that comes over has said, ‘Wow! It even exceeds our expectations.’ I think it’s hard to visualize just how massive it really is until you’re in it.”
In fact, the employees were so excited that many of them moved into their new offices on Monday and Tuesday, even though their furniture hasn’t all arrived yet. Mowinkel said they were anxious to move after working out of five separate rental buildings in Neligh during the construction process.
“They’ve been doing such a good job with less than ideal situations,” he said. “Our goal is to be out of all but one of our rentals by April 1, but I’m not forcing people. Our furniture isn’t in yet. They’re just so tired of being on top of each other that they want to move over here. And I can appreciate that.”
Mowinkel said the best part of the project is the ability “to get everyone back under one roof.”
“The best part about getting everyone back under one roof is for collaboration and team unity,” he said. “We used to be in the same building and we would meet regularly for break or whatever. During construction, we had to schedule a place to have a team meeting.”
Aside from their furniture being delivered, Mowinkel said the renovated building is ready for occupancy.
“It’s just basically painting and touch up work,” he said. “The renovation project back here was pretty extreme. We literally got rid of the old Christiansen building to make our conference center.”
Mowinkel said the $4.388 million project really got underway after the former Brian Christiansen — or more recently, Bearinger Tax— building behind the ESU was purchased and demolition began in September of 2017. The ESU8 board gave its approval months prior.
“We had an 18-month contract,” he said. “Probably in the fall of 2017 is when we really thought it was going to become a reality,” he said. “All of 2018 was construction and the finish work in 2019.”
Unlike most major renovations to educational buildings, this project did not need to be funded by a bond. Mowinkel is grateful to the foresight of previous administration and board members.
“It never could’ve happened if Don Thompson and that board from 20-30 years ago wouldn’t have started this fund,” he said.
Because of the fund, Mowinkel said they had money available; however, the legislature now limits their cash reserve, making them unable to accumulate money for such a project.
“That’s why we had to get the attorney general involved,” he said. “To say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this money. This is our plan. Will you approve that for us?’ He told us yes, but that we had a limited time to get it done. That gave me a push. That’s when Senator Baker became involved and worked with us, making sure we dotted those Is and crossed those Ts.”
Mowinkel said the ESU8 board set a limit of $5 million for the project and the bid came under budget, allowing them to finish the top floor and purchase new furniture and appliances.
“We bid the first time ourselves, without construction management involved, and all of the bids were well over $5 to $6 million,” he said. “It lowered the cost by about 25 percent to bring on construction management.”
Radec Construction of Hartington served as construction management company for the project. Mowinkel said he was pleased with the company and the large number of local subcontractors they brought on board for the project.
“I was thrilled with Radec — and the amount of what I call local subs — subs within our seven-county area that we serve,” he said.
Five subcontractors were from a 15-mile radius, including Clearwater, Neligh and Tilden.
“I think using local subs means something to the general public because the dollars stayed in our seven counties,” Mowinkel said. “Not all of it, but easily the majority of it. Just keep turning the dollars over locally. The thing that’s also nice about local subs is when something isn’t quite right, you can call them and they are there in a day.”
There were some interesting things found during the construction process.
He said swastikas and planes shooting fire down on swastikas were found in the wall. Some of the walls were multicolored or covered in blue and green floral wallpaper.
Mowinkel decided to leave something for the future generations to find as well.
“I left one time capsule in the wall,” he said. “I put an ESU magnetic sticker in it and our annual report, which nobody knows where it’s at.”
Mowinkel said the newly-renovated building utilizes the 12,000 square-foot space much more effectively.
“Our space was utilized so poorly before,” he said. Everybody was tucked in a corner, there was no flow to it. It’s such a good building, but it never had a big plan to make it all flow. Somebody needed an office, they built an office. Somebody needed a place to store stuff, they built a little closet area.”
Mowinkel said the plumbing was outdated as well.
“We were fed by two, 1-inch lines for water and now we have two, 4-inch lines,” he said. “It needed a renovation. It’s a 1901 building, so it’s 118 years old. And the other one is 100 years old. It was time to do a major overhaul and utilize the space. The square feet was here, there were just walls and corridors everywhere.”
Although ESU 8 has a brand-new look and a new main entrance on the south side of the building, Mowinkel said many things will remain the same.
“We have a different address, but the same location, same phone number and same quality staff,” he said with a grin.
ESU 8 will host its first event in the newly-renovated building with the Junior High Quiz Bowl on Tuesday, March 12 at 9 a.m. and the High School Quiz Bowl the following day.
The events will be hosted, in their entirety, in the new space. Participants will use the ESU 8 main entrance on the south side of the building, beginning the day in the new conference center.
Mowinkel said he is thankful the project finished one month ahead of schedule.
“We are able to officially host our first event next week,” he said.