By JAMES BELL
VICTORIA — This month, Victoria residents heard updates from the Victoria Community Coalition as they continue in their effort to repurpose the former St. John’s Rest Home.
Coalition chair and building owner Jeff Pfeifer opened the meeting by highlighting progress already been made to bring the beloved building back to life under the proposed name St. John’s Place.
The Heartland Community Foundation, Pfeifer said, awarded the project a $5,000 grant for architectural work and set up an account for the organization to accept tax-deductible donations. An application that would secure the organization as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 is also underway and associated media explaining the project has been developed, including the launch of a coalition website.
During the meeting, the coalition also shared the results of a completed survey that would qualify the project for grants. They reported responses from 73 percent of homes in the city with active meters.
The survey highlighted the city’s largest employers out of the 49 listed — the Victoria school district, Nex-Tech and Frank’s Oilfield Service — and other economic data, but some of the most telling data centered around the workforce in the city.
“We are a retirement community,” said Victoria Community Coalition Treasurer Marilyn Braun. “Out of the 979 people that we actually surveyed, there are 228 that are 66-plus years of age. Out of those 228, 226 are actually retired, doing nothing. They are retired.”
Children in the city totaled 218.
Further, they found a significant portion of the available Victoria workforce works outside the city.
“Of that percentage that we talked to, 50 percent had a worker in Hays,” Pfeifer said. “Of that, 25 percent had two or more people working in Hays.”
He said that amounts to 70 percent of homes with working individuals are working in Hays.
“Basically, what it told me was, Victoria provides housing for Hays employers, and Hays provides employment for Victoria residents,” Pfeifer said.
He said those findings reflect a mutually beneficial situation.
“I don't see any reason not to reach out to Hays and see how we can work together,” Pfeifer said. “And I've been trying to do that.”
He noted the coalition has been working with Hays-based economic development organizations such as Grow Hays and the Hays Chamber, along with their continued work with the Northwest Kansas Planning and Development Commission after the city of Victoria signed up earlier this year.
“We're a bedroom community to Hays,” Braun said. “We are a retirement community, and we got to do something to bring families in and make housing available for them. It was very clear in the interviews with the employers that finding housing within Victoria is problematic. That was stated by a couple of the employers interviewed. But that's where we are.”
Outside of giving the coalition a clear view of the housing and workforce needs in the city, the survey allows the coalition to apply for Moderate Income Housing program grants available for cities with populations under 60,000 in Kansas.
“This will be our foundation for when we apply to the MIH grant,” Pfeifer said. “We're going to ask for $650,000 from the state that is for housing.”
Homes owned in the community totaled 321, with 117 above the median home value of $172,700 — 204 homes were below the median.
The survey found 71 renters in the city, paying an average rent of $730 monthly. Eighty-three percent reported rent under that amount.
“So, the rent in town is fairly low,” Braun said.
The survey also reported that many currently living in the community would qualify for housing developed in the facility.
“We did find out that for the MIH grant that we were looking at, for 100 percent of income, one person could have $60,600 income, two people could have $69,300 in income and still qualify to live in an MIH moderate-income housing facility,” Braun said.
She said 171 Victoria households are under that threshold.
“What this did was support the need for affordable housing,” Pfeifer said. “So, that leads us to our plan.”
As envisioned currently, the former rest home would include 20 rental units, comprised of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, a childcare center large enough for 20-25 children and open community space. Rent is being roughly projected at $1 per square foot for the apartments.
The Ellis County Historical Society had previously announced they would create a satellite museum in the building as well and would occupy around 9,000 square feet of the around 40,000 square foot facility.
In the proposed agreement, currently being finalized, the society will receive 10 years of free rent. At the same time, they are responsible for the cost of repairing and updating their portion of the building.
“It's good for them, and it's good for our community, good for Ellis County,” Pfeifer said. “They want to focus on the church, the history of the Church, on the artifacts of the church, and they want to focus on the Volga German heritage.”
Moving forward, Pfeifer said the most pressing issue is repairing the aging roof of the entire facility. Due to its current state and the building’s design, nearly all of the whole top will need to be replaced at one time.
He estimates $500,000 to $650,000 would be needed to repair the roof entirely.
Once the roof is secured, Pfeifer said the project would be split into phases, with the total project expected to cost less than $3 million.
Phase one would include the construction of 11 apartments in the newest part of the building, along with the child care center.
But everything is dependent on the current ability of the coalition to raise funds, and while much of the project cost is hoped to be covered by grant and organizational funding, community efforts will be important to demonstrate “buy-in” from Victoria residents.
“They want to see what you're bringing to the table with what you're requesting,” said Heartland Community Foundation Executive Director Sarah Meitner. “They'll see the time that the community has put in the time and it counts for something.”
Time and effort, along with the influx of community dollars into a project, project the overall desire of residents to see a project completed, she said.
“And that's why we're here,” Pfeifer said. “The last piece tonight is, 'How do we do that?' ”
He said currently the coalition has three efforts underway, including a donor campaign, physical work at the facility and fundraisers.
One fundraiser has been planned featuring homemade popcorn balls.
While those fundraisers might generate relatively small amounts compared to the total project cost, Hansen Foundation Facilitator Betty Johnson said it demonstrates more than just a financial commitment.
“It's important for even a Hanson or Schmidt Foundation or Patterson Foundation that the residents of Victoria have financially invested,” Johnson said.
But she said a long list of small contributions matters far more than just a few very large ones.
And it can help leverage the support of the community.
“All you're doing is presenting an opportunity,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to talk to them about what's going on in their community, letting them know, and giving them an opportunity to invest and be a part of some great things going on.
“It [shows] the community cares, and that they believe, and they care and lead by putting dollars in,” she continued. “That's the way Hansen looks at it, is that there's other skin in the game.”
And with the holiday season being a typically more fruitful time for philanthropic giving, Meitner said the push to the end of the year to raise funds for the roof can be successful with a high level of involvement.
“Something like 80-ish percent of charitable giving happens during the month of November and December,” she said. “So, it's the time to get this project out in the community and abroad and even further through alumni or through even into Hays or rural areas and start telling them why this is important and how this benefits the community.”