Top goal: replacing creaky old furnace
By Rebecca Spiess
The Methow Valley Community Center board is looking to replace the building’s ancient boiler, but that’s not their only request: They want community feedback to assess whether pricey, hoped-for improvements are supported by valley residents.
The center’s boiler, a historic Kewanee contraption, is lovingly referred to as “Bertha.” Almost as old as the 108-year-old building she heats, Bertha used to be coal-fired before transitioning to burning wood pellets. Now, she runs on used, filtered motor oil the center collects and recycles from around the valley. This recycling system helps lower costs and keep tenants’ rent low.
Zoned heating, whether electrical or solar, would prevent the building from wasting fuel on heating unoccupied spaces and be much easier to manage. It would also be more environmentally friendly.
The upgrades would not be cheap: Estimates require the installation of an entirely new set of pipes and range in cost from $200,000 to $300,000. However, General Manager Kirsten Ostlie believes that now is the right time to reach out to the community.
“I just think it’s a good time to dream,” she said. “But to invest for a very large sum like this, we do really want the involvement of the people who are going to be caretaking this place after we’re all gone.”
Clarence McCorkle, who has been “tinkering” to keep the furnace up and running for around 15 years, is also looking forward to a better system. “It behaves really well for how old it is. But it does need attention,” McCorkle said.
Referred to as the “Furnace Tamer” on the center’s website, he says “Bertha” requires constant attention to function optimally. McCorkle, 77, is himself a 1961 graduate of Twisp High School, attending from eighth grade through senior year in the very same building.
In a press release, the center described the heater situation as “probably our biggest challenge to date.”
Buy the building?
One of the major roadblocks is the fact that the center does not own the space they are trying to improve. The center leases the building for $1 a year from the Methow Valley School District in an identical arrangement as the Senior Center’s lease on a separate wing. Their next lease runs out in 10 years, while the new heater would service the building on a much longer-term scale.
For Ostlie, the best outcome would be for the center to buy the building from the school district. The district hasn’t held classes there since 1973, when school districts combined and the building was slated for demolition. After five years of abandonment, flooding and vandalism, the building was rescued in 1978. Since then, thousands of volunteer hours and over a million dollars in community funds have restored it.
Tenants who now rent from the Center include the Twisp library, a Taekwon Do studio, the Methow Valley Theater and many others. They are all able to pay subsidized rent for the service they provide to the community. The center itself also achieved 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization in January 2020.
“My personal dream, and my personal opinion,” Ostlie said, “is I would love to pay the school district for the property and have them gift us the building.”
The center, which draws much of its income from hosting events like concerts, memorials and community meetings, has been badly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Replacing “Bertha” would be the next step towards a greener, simpler future for the building.
But Ostlie underscored the importance of community feedback: “We can’t operate in a vacuum. We have to engage the community.”
For those who would like to engage: The center will still be taking part in the Give Methow campaign in October.