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ST. ANSGAR — When Ashley DeMaris and Tyler McKinley stood before the St. Ansgar school board in an effort to save the old Washington Street elementary school, they came with a hope to see the school become a hub of creative activity within the community.

Now, almost a year after they took possession of the building, the South Square project continues to thrive and grow. Their latest addition, a coffee shop, is located in a bright, converted space that offers natural lighting.

The old building celebrated its 90th birthday May 5 with a celebration featuring a band, comedian and alumni of the school.

Already, there are stained glass classes and canvas painting classes taking place in one of the converted rooms, while another room houses the Just For Kix dance group. The gym offers space for the community’s citywide rummage sale when the weather does not cooperate.

The old stage, which was once the sight of performances and graduations, is currently being utilized for plays, such as the upcoming play performed by local home-school students. One of three nonprofits to share in South Square, Clausen Colony offers support to parents and students who home school.

The stage is also the practice space for the Cedar Summerstock Theatre, which will be returning to South Square again this year. The group pairs college-age student actors with local youths to perform at the Krapek Family Fine Arts Center Auditorium in the Cedar River Complex in Osage. It is also home to bingo and open mic nights.

The art gallery displays the works of more than 40 local artists of all ages, while upstairs space has been rented for use as offices and private dance practices. Several of the rooms are still available for rent for crafters, artists and small businesses who lack the space in their home offices to do the work they need to do. South Square has received donations of stained glass and pottery supplies, including a small kiln.

“The rooms are blank canvases waiting to be filled,” DeMaris said.

The 32,000-square-foot brick building features a gym space and a commercial kitchen, which can be used for community suppers, fundraisers and family reunions.

After-school programs and activities take place inside the building, which currently provides space for 30 to 40 different programs a month.

South Square has filled a gap in the community, which previously lacked a space for large community events, like the upcoming horticulture show, which will take place during Town and Country days, DeMaris said.

Organized with more than $40,000 in seed money from local charities, foundations, companies and individuals, South Square thrives through the hard work and dedication of volunteers, who are steadily working to paint, clean, refurbish and upgrade each of the spaces within the building.

“The upstairs rooms can be used by small businesses and as craft space,” DeMaris said, noting rentals can be long or short term. “It is the perfect space for painting, pottery, scrapbooking, quilting, really any craft or project someone might need space for.”

South Square has come to house benefits and class reunions, with several upcoming throughout the year.

With a variety of improvements planned, including restoration, equipment, art supplies, painting, air conditioning for the gym and volleyball nets, the volunteers at South Square are continually working to provide a top creative and learning space.

Chrystal Berche is a correspondent for the Mitchell County Press-News, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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