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Spencer dome work officially underway

With the turn of nine shovelfuls of dirt on the morning of Sept. 2, the construction of Spencer’s concrete dome gymnasium and emergency storm shelter project is formally underway. In reality, earthwork for the $3.25 million structure started a few weeks ago, but Spencer School District and Village of Spencer officials conducted a ceremonial ground-breaking to mark the start of a construction project that should take almost a year to complete.

The ground-breaking is the formal start of a process that dates back several years, and that moved forward with Spencer School District voter approval in an April 2019 referendum. Voters approved a total construction project of $5.98 million, which will include the concrete dome structure, addition of space to the school for various athletic, music and other programs, and renovation of existing restrooms and the high school family and consumer education classroom (already completed).

An integral part of the dome structure project is a major monetary contribution from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the Spencer Board of Education was exploring options for construction of new space -- particularly for a new gymnasium -- it found that FEMA may offer funds to help communities build emergency storm shelters to help limit impacts of major weather events. The school district partnered with the Village of Spencer to apply in early 2019 for a FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant to help pay for the project.

Voters did not yet know in April 2019 if the FEMA funds would be coming, as the grant announcement date came after the referendum election. Voters said “yes” to the overall project anyway, and were then rewarded when FEMA announced it would pitch in for the dome. The district finally learned in May of this year that the grant amount would exceed $2.9 million, which was a higher figure than expected.

The FEMA grant will pay for about 90 percent of the dome construction project, with the district responsible for interior costs such as the gymnasium floor, bleachers, etc. The FEMA funds are pro-rated and will cover the amount spent to build the concrete structure that will withstand tornado winds and give the community a place for residents to go in a weather emergency.

The Board of Education approved one contract earlier this year for preparation of the site for the dome construction. Another contractor will then build the dome, beginning soon. It will erect the framework and pour the footings and concrete structure yet this year, and interior construction work will then occur during the winter and spring months. Spencer District Administrator Mike Endreas said last week that the school expects to be using the new space when the 2021-22 school year begins.

Since the FEMA grant amount is higher than expected, the district will use the remainder of the referendum funds for other projects. The family and consumer education classroom upgrade and the renovation of several restrooms was completed this summer, and creation of a new elementary school entrance and office area was already in place last year. Funds will also be used to replace an elevator in the school complex, and transform an open courtyard space in the elementary area into an enclosed, usable space.