The Southwind Extension District has found a new home. In fact, they’re already moving in.
Thanks to help from the crew at Allen County Public Works, the Extension District was able move decades’ worth of furniture, files, books — a staff favorite uncovered by district director Carla Nemecek was a 1930s dust-covered “How to be a Good Mother-In-Law” — in a matter of hours.
Their new office space is 1004 and 1006 N. State St., prime real estate on one of Iola’s busiest streets.
THE MOVE came thanks to a variety of entities working together. County commissioners agreed last week to purchase the building from Jay Kretzmeier for $140,000, with the money coming from the county’s general fund. Using its taxing entity, the Extension District will pay the county back $100,000 over a five-year period. In return for its $40,000 investment, the county will have rights to use the building’s vault, a cement-floored garage and office space. Thus, 1004 and 1006 N. State will not just be Southwind’s new location; it will also be Allen County’s annex.
County counselor Bob Johnson, who facilitated major elements of the building’s purchase, called the agreement a “win-win” for both the county and the Extension District, a sentiment echoed by all involved.
It also seems to have been a long time coming. Commissioner Jerry Daniels noted that “before COVID, we’d been discussing expansion for years” but had never had a good option.
FOR NEMECEK, the new building presents the Southwind Extension District a chance to “spread our wings.”
The steel frame structure, built in 1972, features 7,000 square feet of office space and has been well maintained over the years, as evidenced by a 2019 appraisal that estimated the building’s worth at 20% more than the purchase price.
And as Nemecek toured the building last week, her eyes seemed to light up with the possibilities.
“The building has a lot of potential,” she remarked. “The meeting space is going to be phenomenal for us. We’ve always had to borrow spaces and work remotely, and I’m excited about the parking and accessibility. We like the idea that it’s entry level.
“I’m also excited about the visibility on State Street,” said Nemecek. “We’re appreciative of the commission, Thrive Allen County, Judge Creitz, Bob Johnson — there have been a lot of moving parts.”
The Southwind Extension District covers Allen, Bourbon, Neosho and Woodson counties. Its mission, notes Nemecek, is much more than sponsoring 4-H clubs and organizing the county fair, though those are often its most visible efforts.
Instead, Nemecek sees the Extension District as a community resource, a place for area residents to find “research-based information” that will help strengthen communities. Whether it’s about how best to garden, nutrition, or youth development, Nemecek sees a place for the Extension District for every family.
The K-State Research and Extension network, which coordinates Extension District efforts statewide, focuses its programming on five “Grand Challenges.” They are: global food systems, water, health, community vitality and leadership development.
To better meet community needs and its mission, Nemecek and her team had been looking for a new location for some time now. Still, the move will also represent Southwind Extension’s first purchase of property, and with that comes some wistfulness.
“I’m going to miss being in the courthouse, and I’ll really miss those big windows, for the record,” laughed Nemecek, her voice threaded with just a hint of melancholy.
“This was not an easy decision for anyone. We spent a lot of time talking about this,” she said. “But COVID has made the need for space all the more apparent. Let’s make the most of it.”
A KEY PART of the puzzle was Honorable Dan Creitz, chief judge of the 31st District Court. Both Johnson and Nemecek credit Creitz with the vision and leadership necessary to get the wheels moving.
Creitz seemed to have little patience for the accolades, preferring instead to discuss how urgent his employees’ needs are. After all, now that the extension office has relocated, his office will be able to take advantage of SPARK funds to renovate and expand into the space vacated by the Extension District.
“I am the Chief Judge of the 31st district,” said Creitz. “That means every court employee is my responsibility. All the court services officers, all the court reporters, everybody working for the court is my responsibility. That’s the way it works. It’s my job to take care of them.”
“That said, there has been a need for more space for court services and community corrections for a long, long time. I’ve been wanting to do this for years. I remember talking with [former county commissioner] Tom Williams about this,” remarked Creitz.
“We are just too cramped, and that’s been amplified by COVID,” Creitz said. “We’ve had to meet with clients in the commissioners’ room, or the small courtroom. Sometimes, we’ve simply been unable to meet with people because there’s not enough room in the office for social distancing.”
“It’s a potential security issue as well,” added Creitz. At this time, Creitz said new locations of the offices are still uncertain, but it’s likely that court services will expand into the space once used by the Extension district, while community corrections will then expand into additional space on the same side of the courthouse. “But all of that’s still to be determined,” he said.
The added pressure of having to use the SPARK funds likely made plans cohese quicker than under normal circumstances. Unused funds return to the federal government at year’s end, but Creitz believes the urgency brought out the best in all involved.
“Bob Johson and the commissioners have been very helpful in all of this. Carla and her office have been amazing to deal with. It’s been very smooth, and everyone has worked well together during a difficult, challenging time,” reflected Creitz.
In many ways, the operation’s linchpin was Kretzmeier, the former owner. And in Kretzmeier’s eyes, all of this came down to good timing.
“I knew this last tax season would be my last,” said Kretzmeier, a recently retired accountant. “And in the early part of this year, I indicated I did not care to be an absentee landlord and would sell the building.”
So when word reached him that the Extension District wanted to move, he got in touch with Johnson. After visits from the Extension employees, their board, and county commissioners, the foundation of a deal seemed in place.
At that time, tenant Janet StClair-Hays had already acquired a building in Gas, “so the timing worked out well for us, and I knew Judge Creitz had the need to expand,” said Kretzmeier.
And just like that, one single building’s purchase was the first domino to fall, with several more to follow. The county found its annex, Southwind its new home, the 31st District Court more space, StClair-Hays a new property, and Kretzmeier was one step closer to his goal of having an estate plan “with no more real estate ownership other than my home.”
“In Iola, with a building like that, it’s often a matter of timing,” reflected Kretzmeier. “I was prepared to wait 18 months or two years to sell. How pleasing it is to pass the ownership.”
And as Nemecek shuffles endless piles of boxes around what is now formally known as the Allen County Annex and Southwind Extension District, she’s tired, but she has to agree: this has been good for everyone. A smile blooms. It’s a lot of work, “sort of like looking at a huge mountain you’re about to climb,” she remarks, but that’s OK. Those are just growing pains.