Replacing the former Challenger building in Peoria: School board approves $1.6M for art center updates

By Philip Haldiman
Independent Newsmedia

It appears the saga of the former Arizona Challenger Space Center in Peoria has achieved some sense of finality.

The Peoria Unified Governing Board voted, 4-1, to approve the construction and procurement phases for the facility to be transformed from a museum into a school, May 30.

Governing board member Beverly Pingerelli dissented.

The building adjacent to Sunrise Mountain High School will be known as the Sunrise Mountain Arts Center, projected to open August 2020.

RELATED: Clearer picture: Former Challenger building in Peoria moving toward art facility concept

Chief Operations Officer John Croteau said it will be repurposed as an arts facility housing arts classes from the high school to make room for more classes on the main campus. The arts classes on campus will be built as standard classrooms.

He said this will alleviate overcrowding in the school, which is at capacity.

Cost for the art annex is estimated at about $1.6 million, mainly for tenant improvements, including an $80,000 contingency that may not be used. The cost to repurpose space on the main campus for classrooms is $383,159.

“We spent five hard months on this project, along with the architect,” Mr. Croteau said. “We’ve had numerous meetings, numerous hours to make sure that this district is getting the most bang for its buck and getting the building that we need.”

The school will gain seven rooms, able to accommodate about 210 students.

The updated facility will provide opportunities for Advanced Placement Art offerings, as well as rental potential and community education programing for revenue generators.

Frank Eager, a ceramics teacher of 18 years at Sunrise Mountain High School, said art classes could be offered in the evening, adding a value to the community, and the project won’t use bond money or tax revenue.

“Change does not sit well with me. I am a creature of habit. I like my room, I like what I have, but I think this is a great thing for our school — repurposing a building and making it useful. It brings the building back into the fold of our school,” he said. “There are some great ideas with this. I know there will be hiccups. Will it be perfect? No. But nothing in public education is. As a teacher, I feel confident repurposing this building.”

However, Peoria resident Rick Gutridge, who sat on past bond advisory committees, said turning the former Challenger building into an art center is a flawed proposition, especially when 75% of PUSD’s 11th graders can’t read at grade level, according to azMERIT test results.

“This district places way too much emphasis on art and not nearly enough emphasis on reading,” he said. “That’s got to change.”

The Peoria Unified Governing Board approved the acquisition of the Challenger center nearly two years ago. Since then, the district has considered a number of ways to use the building until settling on an art’s center, approved by the board, Jan. 24.

Next in the process, PUSD will create timelines for the project, begin the transition into construction and remodel the Sunrise Mountain classrooms.

Board member David Sandoval said a new art center could position the district as a leader in arts.

“When you look at stewardship of finances and sheer inflation, right now this building is not making any money. The more we wait, costs will go up. The more we wait, we will pay more for the same, if you will,” he said. “We’ve done the due diligence, we’ve spend a lot of time to make a very informed decision on this.”

Some board members wrestled with the fiscal responsibility of the building’s new use and the timing, as a proposed override is being planned for the November election. They also questioned whether the building, with all its unconventionalities, was worth buying in the first place.

Board members Beverly Pingerelli and Judy Doane said funds for the facility could be used on other academic needs.

“It does bother me how much we are spending on the arts when our students are not excelling in other areas. My main concern here: Are we sure of the timing? We might need these monies for other things if stuff doesn’t get passed,” Ms. Doane said. “This school district is in a bad fix in some areas. But if we change the direction we’re going in, it’s going to take another six months just to get the architecture drawings. I just can’t get happy with the whole thing.”

Staff and board members have struggled with how to use the unconventional 25,000 square-foot building, which features a 2,600 rotunda that takes away from space that could be used for educational purposes. Only 13,000 square-feet is usable for classrooms.

Board member Cory Underhill said this is creating a space for very crowded high schools with a potential revenue generator. She said it is way more beneficial than allowing the building to sit, and less costly than starting over.

Using the building as an art space may not be the perfect plan, but it gets the district going in the right direction, she said.

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” she said. “Moving forward on this will show our community that we are committed to what we decided upon, and finally get some momentum. The building may evolve into something completely different but at least we have a space for our students to use to alleviate overcrowding.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697,, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.


Aug.10, 2017:
Peoria Unified Governing Board approved the acquisition of Challenger Center. Medical, Engineering, Technology Academy originally identified as occupant
Oct. 30, 2017: Peoria Unified acquired the property through a land swap with KMK, LLC.
April 2018: Internal investigation launched to uncover why governing board members were not alerted to expenses of nearly $1.5 million for the project
May 2018: after completing plans and bidding out the project, governing board puts plans on hold
Jan. 9, 2019: Community forum
Jan. 11, 2019: Repurposing committee meeting
Jan. 24, 2019: Peoria Unified Governing Board voted 5-0 to repurpose the Challenger building into the Sunrise Mountain Arts Center
May 30, 2019: Peoria Unified Governing Board voted 4-1 to approve the construction and procurement phases for the facility to be transformed from a museum into a school.

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