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Watershed Inc. directors going over plans inside McGinnis Gymnasium. Photo by Geoff Shirley

On May 25, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the allocation of a Brownfields Cleanup Grant worth $979,222 to the Buena Vista-based nonprofit Watershed, Inc. This grant will be used to restore the 5,450-square-foot McGinnis Gymnasium property located at 113 North Court Street, just off Buena Vista’s Main Street.

Built in 1936, the McGinnis Gymnasium has been closed to the public since 2008 due to the presence of hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead-based paint, mercury and mold.

The gym’s designation as a brownfield site is due to the presence of these hazardous materials. According to the EPA brownfield sites are properties where “expansion, redevelopment, or reuse… may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

Other brownfield grants awarded in Colorado on May 25 included the towns of San Luis and Silverton, San Miguel County, the Mt. Carmel Wellness and Community Center in Trinidad and The Keating School in Pueblo. The EPA awarded a total of nearly $4.78 million for cleanup and restoration.

According to the EPA, this round of brownfield grants is the largest ever package of brownfield MARC (Multipurpose, Assessment, Revolving Loan Fund, and Cleanup) grants awarded in the program’s history, dating back to 1995.

Watershed Inc. acquired the McGinnis Gym property, alongside the Buena Vista School Administration Building, on Sept. 1 of 2022. This was after the Buena Vista School District put out a call for proposals on the refurbishment or demolition of McGinnis Gym back in 2021. Shortly after acquiring the properties, Watershed President Katy Welter was able to begin the Brownfield Grant application process, which she described as “nationally competitive” and “highly technical.”  

“There’s no way we could’ve done it without the help of KSU,” said Welter. Kansas State University is one of a handful of institutions funded by the EPA to aid in the brownfield grant application process through the Technical Assistance to Brownfields Communities (TAB) program. Welter also acknowledged the crucial role played by consulting firm Tetra Tech and Brownfields Project Manager Ted Lanzano.

In addition to the EPA grant, Watershed Inc. is receiving funding from the Buena Vista School District and History Colorado, a state historical preservation organization. The goal for McGinnis Gym is to restore it to its original 1936 appearance, with comprehensive documentation and rehabilitation efforts aimed at capturing its original form as accurately as possible.

McGinnis Gym in 1958, with the WPA-funded sports field in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Watershed Inc.

Watershed worked with historical preservation organizations to build up a comprehensive image of the structure in its original state, and all rehabilitation efforts will be performed with the express purpose of recapturing McGinnis Gym’s original form as accurately as possible. This will have to include “getting rid of some features that are outside of the period of significance,” according to Welter. 

“All masonry will be refinished, floors will be redone,” Welter told the Ark Valley Voice, “when you walk in you’ll be like, wow this is what it was like in 1936.” 

While no specific completion dates have been set, construction is expected to begin this summer and conclude in the summer of 2024. The selection of a general contractor will be finalized on June 16.

Collaboration between Watershed and the Buena Vista School District has been crucial to the project.

“The whole idea has always been to get the gym back to the school,” Welter said, “this will be an elementary school gym.” Upon completion of the project, Watershed will return McGinnis Gym to the school district’s ownership. 

The refurbishment of McGinnis Gym will address a lack of indoor recreation facilities for environmentally sensitive populations such as children and the elderly in Buena Vista.

U.S. Representative for Colorado’s 7th district, Brittany Pettersen, expressed her support for the federal funds allocated to the cleanup efforts, stating: “I’m glad to see federal funds coming to cleanup efforts, which will help our communities thrive. The McGinnis Gymnasium holds a rich historical significance in Buena Vista, and this award ensures it will continue to serve the next generation in Chaffee County.”

The gym and administration building are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following completion of the McGinnis Gym project, Welter and her husband are looking into possible restoration efforts for the administration building.