The Ward Elementary building that has stood empty for more than three years will change hands and become a center for neighborhood health services.

Officials of Fort Wayne Community Schools and Neighborhood Health announced the pending transfer at a Jan. 6 press conference at the southeast Fort Wayne property.

The exact timetable is inexact, though all agreed the move is imminent.

Neighborhood Health CEO Angie Zaegel said the agency will add services at the Ward location at 3501 S. Warsaw St. while continuing operations at the main location at 1717 S. Calhoun St. and the second facility at 3350 E. Paulding Road.

“Most of our patients come from the 46806 ZIP Code and I am very thrilled that we are moving into the neighborhood where our patients live, especially those who have transportation issues, Zaegel said.

Having not been informed of any interest in the empty building, the school district had begun steps toward demolition, at an estimated cost of $243,000.

That’s when community groups made their case to save and repurpose the building.

“I’m happy to announce that we will not be demolishing this building,” FWCS Superintendent Mark Daniel said. “I’ve signed a letter of intent to transfer the building at no cost to Neighborhood Health, which gives the building new life and provides much-needed services in this area of our city.”

FWCS Board President Julie Hollingsworth reminded listeners that longtime FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson, who retired in 2020, began her career teaching second grade at Ward Elementary. “So I think she along with us would be very pleased with today’s outcome,” Hollingsworth said.

“ ... speaking on behalf of the board, I think this is really a win, win,” Hollingsworth said.

In an interview, Neighborhood Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sharon Singleton said “we have a great need” in the area surrounding Ward. She said it is a special benefit to those whose transportation challenges prevent them from reaching other facilities.

“We have a lot to offer with all the services, but what I’m most excited about is we’ll have space for education, for diabetic education, and helping with a lot of the chronic diseases,” Singleton said. “We can even have people come in and meet with groups as we’re helping to teach them to handle these things. Someday we’ll be past COVID and we can meet in groups again.

“I think many people are still going without health care,” Singleton said. “We provide service to fully insured patients as well as those who are underinsured or uninsured. I’ve been with Neighborhood Health for 3 years now and have been shocked to see how many in our community are still in need.”

She said another Fort Wayne-based agency — Matthew 25 Health and Dental Clinic — assists people who have no income and don’t have health insurance. “But we have a lot of working poor,” Singleton said. “They might work at some jobs but maybe not have the money for health care. We work with them on a sliding scale fee, and we provide I think excellent service to all these patients.”

The School Board will be asked to pass a resolution transferring the property; no specific date was given.

A statement released at the news conference explains that Neighborhood Health is prepared to move into the space almost immediately. The agency also is exploring pharmacy services. The building might serve as a healthy food resource. “The organization plans to work closely with neighborhood and community group to determine other potential uses for the remaining space,” the announcement said.

Donita Mudd was among the community members who attended the event and applauded the announcement. “I live in this community, not in Oxford per se but I live up a few blocks over from here,” Mudd said. “The FWCS had put out a solicitation for demolition for this building and we didn’t know that was happening, so it just kind of threw up a flag and made other folks aware of it. And our first goal was to stop the demolition in order for this property to have a chance to find a second life.

“I was a substitute teacher here for years. I mean I’ve driven past here my entire life.”

She was saddened at the prospects of a vacant lot covering an entire block. “It makes you want to drop your shoulders and throw up your hands because of the potential that this property would have,” Mudd said. “And I’m excited that this is a project other than housing, so that means the economic development impact to the southeast is ongoing. It won’t stop with construction. Every day people will be coming here. They can use other facilities, go to work. We’ll have patients coming in. So it will help our area grow.”

Zaegel, the Neighborhood Health CEO, said the 50-year-old organization is pleased to expand its services to a third location. She said the need for more space has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the agency coordinates services of physicians, dentists, dental hygienists, nurse practitioners, registered dietitians, registered nurses, and licensed social workers.

“I think we have some space in which we can do some creative things,” Zaegel said. “And I hope it all will come to fruition as soon as possible.”

Ward Elementary opened in 1931 and served in several capacities through the 2016-17 school year when the district’s alternative learning program moved to the former Nebraska Elementary, which is now known as the Center for Academic Success at Nebraska.

Hollingsworth, the FWCS board president, explained and emphasized that state law mandates a 2-year wait before a public school building can be sold or demolished. That interval allows time for a private charter school to acquire the property for $1. “So we spent taxpayer money during that time of course to keep the building viable and then we were faced with what to do with the building. No one wants to close a school and we certainly didn’t want to have to demolish it,” she said.

She thanked the Oxford Community Association and others who stepped forward with the successful proposal.

The school was named for the district’s superintendent from 1920-1931.

The engraved stone arch proclaiming Louis C. Ward faces the west side of the building, which is otherwise surrounded by wire security fence. The flag pole has been long idle. Some blemishes are visible on the exterior and limited evidence of a hurried uncertain exodus can be inside. A clock in the tiny gym that holds the stage of the former theater arts magnet school has been stalled at 6:46 for a good while.

Nearby, school information is still tacked on a bulletin board. Lockers await whatever purpose they may serve. The building, though idle, does not complain that it has been abandoned.

The building is surrounded by a busy neighborhood. Churches occupy two adjacent properties and a third is a half-block north. The historic South Side Farmers Market is one block north. A beauty shop, a market and another health agency are just across Oxford Street.

Patricia Veazy works in that same block, at Positive Resource Connection. “We work with people who have HIV and AIDS,” Veazy said. “We provide medication and care coordination and we do some free testing as well.”

She also has family in the neighborhood. “I am so happy to hear that the building will not be torn down. That was one of my concerns,” she said in an impromptu moment as she delivered a meal to her mother’s home. “And health care for people in this community who do not have transportation, or who have problems with transportation. I think that’s going to be a great idea.”

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