Tipton Leads New Community Center


Kendallville, IN - “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Those words, attributed to Margaret Mead, might sum up the motivations of those behind the launch of a new community learning center (CLC) in Noble County.

The Kendallville High School that opened in 1915 at the corner of Diamond and Riley Streets, and expansions made over the years, served East Noble Middle School students until 2017. When the site was vacated in 2018 its fate became uncertain and a grew to a thing of controversy in the community.

Several Kendallville citizens came together in response, as the Historic Kendallville Task Force, and with the support of the Kendallville city council convinced school officials to hold off on demolition. Some of the opportunities the task force envisioned are now becoming a reality. Extensive work completed already this year, largely by volunteers, is evident. Under the direction of project manager Tim Holcomb, and boosted by people like community volunteer Jenna Anderson, the physical transformations are well underway. Holcomb’s hiring was followed by the arrival of Julia Tipton as executive director in June. One might say things are now moving full steam ahead.

Just a few months ago, if not for those thoughtful, committed citizens and council members, and the Dekko Foundation, this would probably be a story about an ending rather than a beginning. Instead, city council members adopted a resolution approved by the school board in February to enact two agreements that ultimately changed the course of events.

One resolution paved the way for the city to accept title to the property. The other enabled the Dekko Foundation to provide a $1 million endowment. Those funds could be used to tear down the building, but given the evident enthusiasm behind the learning center it will more likely bring about a variety of educational programs and entertainment to a wide audience, not just in Kendallville but throughout the county and region.

During a recent tour of the building, led by Tipton, attendees got to see progress in the construction and remodeling completed and heard about many possible programs imagined for the site. Just after the small group began touring Tipton pointed out the classroom where she began her teaching career in 1983. Before her new role as director she was principal at Waterloo Elementary School. Prior to that she worked for Fort Wayne Community Schools. She seemed excited to have come “full circle”, back to Noble County.

As the group followed Tipton, stepping aside for a moving manlift and listening intently between the sounds of power tools, a vision began to come into focus. The tour visited the gymnasium, fresh with a new coat of paint featuring green and blue, colors used to promote Noble County’s assets by the Economic Development Corporation, tourism bureau, and Thrive Noble County. Bleachers in place, wrestling mats nearby, the space appeared ready for new life. Tipton said Holcomb had put six basketball backboards, and a mechanized curtain to separate the full court into two smaller courts, back into working order.

She spoke with zeal, sometimes losing some of her audience briefly as they trailed behind while trying to keep up. Tipton shared long lists of ideas and pointed out many of the physical changes already completed. She talked about the former cafeteria and adjoining kitchen. They might be used for family reunions, receptions, and community events. Once some of the kitchen equipment that was removed is replaced, a “shared/teaching kitchen” could become a program offering. For a fee, someone might be able to schedule use of the kitchen and the fees they pay would allow them to use storage space in the massive walk-in refrigerator and freezer for ingredients. This space would also be utilized for teaching related to healthy cooking and living.

New tables and chairs will be needed, but once in place the cafeteria might be used as a common area and to serve meals, and for “lunch and learn” programs. The walls have already been painted there, too, and graphics that pay homage to the former home of the Knights will likely stay, an intentional choice to honor the building’s local history.

As the tour continued Tipton spoke about plans to use solar power by installing panels on the roof. She noted, and participants could see, upgrades to electrical services and wireless internet connectivity throughout. Air conditioning provided relief when the tour group entered what they were told would be a new board room, adjacent to several new administrative offices on the first floor. The group learned these spaces would be some of the first fully finished and furnished to accommodate Tipton and program coordinators yet to come.

When the group entered the historic 1938 theater at least one camera got a workout. The impressive art deco detailing is still intact. Tipton said consultants will be brought in to assess the “back of the house” to determine what will be needed to make the space ready to use once again. The venue might be used for programs, non-profit performances, as well as serve as a “for-profit” venue available for rental.

The large and open theater lobby space is an area Tipton was especially excited about. She spoke about using the space for a variety of gatherings and noted an exposed ceiling would remain “as is”, maintaining historic integrity. New, custom windows were already designed and ordered to help preserve the historic feel while providing better, modern energy efficiency.

The list of possibilities that probably exceed what most have considered obvious choices, like classroom-style teaching and meetings, continued to unfold as the tour moved on. Tipton spoke of “maker spaces”, arts programs, and skilled trades training. She talked about an opportunity to teach people how to use power tools properly and safely. She also showed off the arts and crafts space, where she said there is a kiln, left behind by the former middle school. She is in the process of writing a grant to create a visual arts center and fund equipment to be housed in this area of the building. Tipton highlighted the existing, built-in glass exhibit cases that could become a gallery to exhibit works created in the learning center.

Much of the research required to delve into budgets and begin collaborating with others in greater Noble County is keeping Tipton busy. She spoke about the use of electronic keypads to allow program leaders access to the spaces they need while keeping the building safe and secure. She is looking into technology that might enable live-streaming educational presentations, virtual business meetings, and conferences. Tipton also noted the center’s choice to hire local contractors for nearly everything the center is doing. She is working on things like memorandums of understanding and program fee structures, and letters that she hopes to complete later this year to possible partners.

There are still a lot of pieces to the puzzle to work out, but Tipton said some programming could begin as soon as this fall. She said a high school reunion booked for mid-September will be among the first events to take place not planned by the learning center itself.

As the tour came to an end it was clear that the excitement and optimism that has, so far, saved one of Noble County’s few remaining, large-scale historic buildings is genuine. There is a group of people, committed to a vision, working hard to make Noble County, if not the world, better through change.

To learn more and follow the progress of the community learning center, find them on Facebook or call Julia Tipton at 260-318-3248. 

By Lori Gagen, Marketing Director, Noble County EDC