Fate of former Challenger building in Peoria is still up in the air

By Philip Haldiman
Independent Newsmedia

The fate of the building that formerly housed the Arizona Challenger Space Center, 21170 N. 83rd Ave., adjacent to Sunrise Mountain High School, has been delayed, shifted gears and remains up in the air.

The facility had been intended to house Peoria Unified’s Medical, Engineering, Technology students, but now the district is looking at other options including a possible art center concept and an arts Advanced Placement center.

The governing board could consider the fate of the building at a public meeting this spring, but no exact date has been set.

Compounding delays was a governing board-ordered internal investigation to uncover why governing board members were not alerted to skyrocketing expenses of nearly $1.5 million to make the building student-ready.

Superintendent Linda Palles Thompson said an investigation has been completed.

She said at the time of the Challenger purchase, August 2017, there was a plan without clear parameters and a rushed timeline that had little chance of being successful in converting a space designed as a interactive museum into an educational facility suitable for student instruction.

Additionally, staff has more clarity now that a $189.2 million bond posed to voters has been decided, failing by about 6 percent in the Nov. 6 general election.

Officials said the earliest move-in date would be the 2019-20 school year, depending on the final determination of programing.

“Now that the bond is over, we can receive more direction,” said John Croteau, chief operations safety and risk management officer.

Enrollment needs

The bond would have funded new infrastructure for two schools, but will now force officials to look at new ways to deal with overcrowding schools in the growing northern part of the city.

Mr. Croteau said the former Challenger building is one way to meet those enrollment needs with neighboring Sunrise Mountain, 21200 N. 83rd Ave., at capacity. But first the Challenger building must be up to code, he said.

It will take $507,000 to get it ready as an educational setting.

Updates include improvements such as a new restroom, fire alarm and energy management systems, plumbing, electrical, walls, painting and flooring, as well as IT networks and devices.

Mr. Croteau said that in utilizing the facility, the district hopes to increase enrollment capacity in the northern part of the district, optimize the unique footprint of Challenger center to maximize use of space and enhance future program opportunities for students and the community.

Moving forward, the staff and governing board are looking at creative ways to use the building, but Mr. Croteau said transforming a building that was set up as a museum to look like a spaceship into an educational space poses challenges.

The 25,000 square foot building’s most significant feature is a 2,600 square foot rotunda that takes away from space that could be used for educational purposes. Only 13,000 square feet is usable for classrooms, Mr. Croteau said.

“It is a circular building with a rotunda that has a space that is not usable. We do have some limitations on what we can do with the building,” he said. “It seems like a very big building, but by the way it is constructed, it is not very big.”

Art center

The district is considering moving the four visual arts classrooms, which are bigger than normal classrooms, from Sunrise Mountain into the Challenger building,which could become an art center and district-wide Advanced Placement program. Director of Art Education Robert Panzer said the rooms at the high school could be converted to create up to seven general education classrooms that could house up to 35 students per classroom.

An art center is one option the district is considering for the former Challenge center. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia
Mr. Panzer said with increased  enrollment, the district has to look at the resources available, but getting creative, the building has some good benefits.

Maybe the arts are a good thing for a unique space like this building, he suggested.

“When you look at the sizes of some of those spaces, making a movement into the Challenger Center opens up an incredible amount of capacity at Sunrise Mountain,” Mr. Panzer said. “Those arts classes on the Sunrise Mountain campus range from 1,300 to 1,2000 square feet. An average classroom size is about 9,500 square feet. So you definitely have the potential to increase your capacity from an enrollment standpoint on  the Sunrise Mountain campus in the northern part of the district by a minimum”

A proposed plan calls for the rotunda to be utilized as a flex space for small theater performances, as well as community rentals or a makerspace, a place where people with shared interests can gather, share ideas and create.

Potential uses for the building include spaces for recording music or performances, arts education professional development, student art gallery and studio drawing. Mr. Panzer said some spaces are very appropriate for musical rehearsals, such as choir or jazz band.

Revenue source

Mr. Panzer said the facility could be used for community education programing in the evenings with the possibility for a partnership with the city of Peoria and the community for rental space as a revenue generator.

“Many of our students go to private music lessons out in the community. Why are we letting them go elsewhere when we have the educators who are able to provide that service to them, teaching those private lessons to our students?” he asked. “We have had number of individuals and organizations reach out to us and ask about using our fancily from a facility-rental stand point. That’s that revenue source, that opportunity to take something and make it really great by providing space for a third party to come in and provide education for our community, whether it be adult education or extended education for our students.”

Up next

District officials would not speak about how much the art center concept might cost.

PUSD CFO Michelle Myers said before costs can be considered, architectural designs must be completed, which would cost $35,000 to 40,000.

A possibility still on the table is selling the district administrative building, 6330 W. Thunderbird Road, Glendale, and moving staff into the Challenger building.

President Monica Ceja Martinez said she needs to know the financials, not only for the proposed art center, but also other options, including possible revenue gained from selling the administrative building.

“I believe this is a sound concept to meet the class size issue, but there are still some unknowns,” she said. “What would be the cost to sell (the Challenger building), or the cost to move the district office there and sell the (administrative building). I have heard that (the administrative building) is a hot commodity and how much revenue can we generate from each of those options? If those options don’t compare to the options presented, then I would be comfortable and confidant moving forward with the art center option. But if selling the district office brings more revenue to build more buildings at Liberty High School to offset the need for lower class sizes, I would like that information to consider.”

Governing boardmember Beverly Pingerelli said the art center concept is a great idea but also wanted to consider all options.

“As a boardmember, I’d like to get the most bang for our buck, since we don’t have a lot of bucks right now to work with,” Ms. Pingerelli said. “But I would like to see other ideas because before we put in more money, I would like to get a better view of what is possible.”

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