Workshops
December 7th, 2023
Boswell, IN

Reimagining a Town Commons: Boswell Elementary’s Transition from School to Community Hub

Driving down Route 41 in rural western Indiana, a pit stop in Boswell is an opportunity to see rural design and creative placemaking happening in real time. With leadership from J.O.B.S. Renewable Fund, Inc. and support from CIRD, citizens are collaborating to repurpose the local elementary school and nearby grounds. The local design workshop focused on ways to turn the closed school into a multi-use indoor and outdoor space that meets the multiple needs of Benton County’s residents.
Local resource team members and CIRD staff during site visit in Boswell, Indiana. Photo credit, Courtney Spearman.

Background and Workshop Challenge

Boswell, IN is nestled in between beautiful countryside, agricultural fields, and towering wind turbines. Located next to Route 41 with a population of 799, it is one of several small towns in Benton County with a quiet main street anchored by a beautiful Carnegie library and a few proud, locally owned restaurants. At the edge of Boswell’s small downtown sits the former Boswell Elementary School.

Built in 1968, with an addition completed in 1984, the school no longer houses students, but it remains a point of both pride and pain for the community and is the focal point of the CIRD design challenge. Successful re-purposing of the site will be a step forward for Boswell and the surrounding area.

As early as 2004, Boswell Elementary School was threatened with closure and consolidation. Hope was renewed in November 2020 when a new superintendent and self-imposed tax were brought in to keep the school open. But it wasn’t enough: the school closed its doors in May 2021, giving the community less than a month left in the school year to accept the harsh reality that this anchor institution was indefinitely shuttered.

Boswell residents, many of whom had multiple generations of family at the school, shared with CIRD that they felt robbed, both financially with the tax increase and socially upon losing their school and what it represented to the community. Boswell’s emotional response to the school closure undergirded the community’s CIRD application and the entire community-led design process carried out in the CIRD workshop.

Boswell residents engage with CIRD staff during the Local Design Workshop. Photo credit, Hillary Presecan.

Boswell embodies many contemporary rural challenges: declining population, food deserts, poverty, limited and poor-quality housing, and a lack of high paying 21st century jobs. Former Boswell resident and Boswell Elementary alum TJ O’Malley has sought to address some of these challenges after returning to the area to establish Auxilius, a wind energy company providing a range of turbine maintenance services and training for the next generation of technicians in the renewable energy industry. Through Auxilius’ non-profit arm J.O.B.S. Renewable Fund, O’Malley purchased the school building in 2021, soon after its closure. J.O.B.S. intends for the facility and surrounding acreage to serve as a community anchor and hub for local and sustainable economic opportunities, a reimagined version of the school for the 21st century.

Workshop Process

Site visit

On September 21, 2023, CIRD staff and members of the resource team visited Boswell to gain a better understanding of the Boswell Elementary School, the relationship between J.O.B.S. and the Boswell community, and other areas of opportunity for local engagement.

This site visit helped CIRD better understand and identify some initial priorities and potential challenges. It was also an opportunity to draw in and get input from some additional core supporters of the project, including the local library and several civic leaders in town. This time was also critical for cementing connections across the design team, including Catherine Baker from NoWhere Collaborative, Maddie Clark and Khadiya Toure from PORT Urbanism based in Chicago. The CIRD team included Omar Hakeem, Candace Maloney-Franklin, and Brandon Robles from TBD Studio, Hillary Presecan from HAC, and Courtney Spearman from NEA.

Resource Team Members on a site visit in the Boswell Elementary School gym, now used as a training facility for wind turbine maintenance. Photo by, Courtney Spearman

Virtual Engagement

During and after the site visit, it became clear that the typical three-day structure and format of a CIRD workshop didn’t make sense for the Boswell project. There was more ground work and community building – even healing - that needed to take place around the basic idea of the school’s repurposing. Confidence needed to be built in J.O.B.S. intentions and commitment to making a truly community-oriented space. As a result, the CIRD program shifted to remotely supporting the Boswell team on smaller engagement activities at other local events, and a shorter in-person workshop focused on gathering resident input, building trust, and generating community enthusiasm for the project’s potential.

From the start, the J.O.B.S. team, along with design support from NoWhere Collaborative and PORT Urbanism, were proactive and engaged with the workshop process, working closely with CIRD staff in the logistics of in-person and virtual engagements related to their design challenge.  All members of this team played a vital role during these meetings, collecting data, and providing community context leading up to the workshop. The team also assigned roles and responsibilities, discussed engagement strategies, and prepared for the upcoming design process.

Community members discuss design concepts with the Boswell local resource team. Photo credit, Hillary Presecan.

CIRD Local Design Workshop Visit - December 7, 2023

The workshop activities kicked off with several stakeholder focus groups, including local business owners, officials, and city council representatives. The morning activities with community members included an overview of CIRD and an introduction to the project, followed by splitting the community members into two groups to brainstorm ideas on the use of Boswell Elementary School building.

After lunch the CIRD team delved deeper with the J.O.B.S. team on potential uses for the elementary school. This discussion helped to confirm some long-term goals for the project.

Boswell residents tour the former school during the workshop. Photo credit, Catherine Baker.

The day ended with a public open house for any community members interested in seeing what Auxilius has done with the space and to share their thoughts and ideas for what could be next.

The open house was festive and fun, intended to draw in a wide range of community members. Attendees enjoyed some local food while their children enjoyed playing games and jumping in the bouncy houses set up on site. Through conversations and comment cards, Boswell residents gave input on the possible programming that could happen in this space. They also shared fond memories of what the school was like while offering candid feedback on what the building might become. The event ended with greater understanding and interest in what their former school can become - a community space with opportunities to learn and grow.

Boswell community engaging in meaningful conversations during the CIRD Local Design Workshop. Photo credit, Catherine Baker.

Outcomes

After the workshop and open house event, J.O.B.S.  team was thrilled with the amount of community conversation and how much interest Benton County has in the future of the former elementary school. The Boswell workshop provided valuable community perspectives that will inform the design challenge going forward.

Residents expressed a desire for a multi-use community space with continuing education, arts and makerspace facilities, and coworking space with an open access kitchen, exercise amenities, outdoor trails, and agricultural components present. Some suggestions that got a lot of support were GED classes, pottery classes, indoor exercise classes for senior citizens, and cooking classes in the former elementary school kitchen.

Residents hope for a community center accessible to the everyone, with all ages being served. Most importantly, they voiced the need for this community space to be community run, with programming and services based on local needs. Some ideas for the outdoor space include an outdoor trail, perhaps with a community flower garden maintained by county volunteers.  

The residents of the town and county will be the first beneficiaries of the project through job creation, new community spaces, and an increase in local business development. If housing is incorporated into the plan, additional income from visiting Auxilius trainees and tourism may catalyze new businesses to open in the town. The redesign of the site may offer new health-oriented recreational opportunities such as walking paths, bike trails, and pollinator gardens for the community. The repurposing of the school building and site may serve as a prototype for adaptive reuse of buildings in other rural places.

Boswell design concepts and priorities developed throughout the CIRD engagement process. Photo credit, TBD Studio.
Community input on the floorplans during the Boswell Local Design Workshop. Photo credit, TBD Studio.

Next Steps

In partnership with NoWhere Collaborative and with support from PORT Urbanism, the CIRD design team will finalize concept designs based on resident feedback. J.O.B.S. is also planning to continue with community input sessions as the next steps in the design challenge. Additionally, J.O.B.S. will remain in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort throughout 2024. This program will continue to offer additional resources, including access to CIRD’s technical assistance experts and peer-to-peer learning opportunities with other rural community leaders. J.O.B.S.’s experience throughout this design challenge will inform ongoing design work and conversations throughout rural America.

Boswell's local resource team and CIRD staff during the Local Design Workshop.