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John White scraped at excess grout on the tiles in a first-floor restroom at the former St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ashland.
Building a handicapped-accessible restroom is the latest project White has taken on since he and co-owner Geoff Gorres bought the building and began transforming the building from a place of worship to a private gathering spot and home.
"There is a lot of sweat equity being invested here," White said, scraping away at the tiles.
White and Gorres have ambitious plans for the historic structure that Ashland's Episcopal Church had to give up as its congregation shrank. It's now known as Chapple on Third Event Center, a place for weddings, fundraisers, reunions and other events.
Although they've changed little about the Victorian Gothic exterior, a lot is going on inside, particularly to the church's former social hall, which Gorres has dubbed the guild hall in recognition of the medieval feel of the structure's intricate hammer beam timber-framed ceiling.
Until they removed a drop ceiling installed to save energy, the beauty of the massive, locally cut timbers was hidden. The ceiling is now illuminated by a series of matching chandeliers that allow it to shine.
Just a few weeks after they bought the building, White and Gorres held their first event — a retirement party for a colleague at Memorial Medical Center.
The event center was not ready for major events, but the event was still well received by the 80 who attended. On Thursday, a meeting of the Tri-County Medical Society was held there.
"I wasn't here, but the indications I have gotten are that people liked it quite a bit," White said, expressing hope that the organization would continue to gather there.
The duo's focus now is on hosting an Ashland Chamber of Commerce Business after Five gathering in
December, sponsored by MMC.
White said they planned to have the guild hall floor refinished by then, and have the main floor bathrooms completed.
"It's perfect timing. We'd like to work on booking people for the summer, and this will allow us to show the place off," he said.
Next up will be a 1,200-square-foot deck that will allow events to move outside in pleasant weather.
White freely admits that the business isn't making money yet, but the improvements have made the structure more valuable than when they bought it for $125,000.
White figures they've invested about $30,000 — plus a ton of sweat equity — in improvements and they hope to be ready to host their first wedding in May.
"We have put a ton of work into it," he said. "If we had paid people to do this stuff, it would have been ridiculous, he said.
White estimated they might still need to invest $100,000 for-big ticket items like plumbing improvements, but the potential of the building was enormous.
"The city really doesn't have anything else like this," White said.
Gorres said renovations would continue this winter, with completion of lower-level living spaces and then the deck in the spring.
"It's a beautiful space," he said. "We have tried to be respectful of the space, understanding the transition that the building has gone through. Especially considering what was covered up for so long, it really does feel good to have it like this. This is what the architect had in mind."
Bay-Area kids who dream of being the next Bruce Lee or Rhonda Rousey have the perfect training grounds in Ashland where a fitness program called Ninja Zone is taking root at the Bretting Center.
Ninja Zone, offered by the city as a way to keep kids both fit and confident, combines elements of gymnastics, obstacle training, freeform movement and martial arts. Classes began on Oct. 26, and already are reaching near 90% of capacity.
"It combines a lot of elements that will reach out to different kids, not just gymnasts," said Donna Kurilla, coordinator of the Parks and Recreation Department's gymnastics program, which now includes Ninja Zone.
Kurilla said the program is a twist on fitness training, but also introduces participants to ideas about focusing their energy to work through a task in an atmosphere of fun and high-voltage energy.
Although it does use gymnastic equipment, it's not gymnastics. For one thing, the kids all wear Ninja headbands and T-shirts. The teacher leads them in activities like tag games in which the person tagged has to do a number of push-ups. Though kids are running, tumbling and doing vigorous activities, Ninja Zone also includes discussion about the Ninja Creed, a set of core values that involve responsibility, perseverance,
respect and discipline. The program also emphasizes impulse control, a work ethic and self-responsibility.
One big plus for the program, which costs between $60 and $72 depending on age, is that it has proved to be very attractive for boys, although girls also participate in the program.
It's unfortunate reality that few boys choose to take part in gymnastics. But it doesn't take much persuasion for them to become ninjas, and taking part in Ninja Zone can be an attractive alternative; providing many of the same health and character-developing benefits that other organized sports like gymnastics provide.
"One of the real reasons we reached out to Ninja Zone was to get more boys involved in our programming," said Parks and Recreation Administrative Assistant Linda Simanovsky. "It's a way of getting more skill and fitness development."
Ninja Zone coach Auggie Walheim said that the kids involved in the program pick up a range of skills, including improved agility and body control as they learn about personal responsibility. But it's not all serious. Frequent raucous games of tag that allow the kids to burn off huge amounts of excess energy often break out.
Walheim said participants thus far are embracing it all.
"I was teaching some kids how to do ninja rolls and they went home and practiced them, along with things like handstands," he said.
Dylan Blancarte, 12, of Ashland, said learning new skills and staying fit is great. But what he most enjoys about Ninja Zone is that the workouts are done together.
"It's pretty fun. I like it. We get to play around a lot and I get to be with my friends," he said. "You get to know more people."
Dylan's mom Greta Blancarte said the program is helping Dylan burn off winter energy and grow into a responsible young man.
"He talks about goalsetting, about setting small goals and building on them," she said. "Setting goals at this age is something that young boys don't always do."
Ninja Zone is a worldwide program with more than 240 gyms participating. Ashland City Council members recently approved spending $874 to enroll Ashland in the program.
"To be able to bring this program to the kids is well worth it," Kurilla said. "It's really amazing to see other kids come into our gym and have fun there."
Ron and Judy Pajac own a number of rental properties in Ashland.
Their tenants mostly pay their rent on time and are respectful of their landlords' property. Sometimes, though, things go wrong.
"Every landlord gets a bad one from time to time," said Ron Pajac, as he and wife Judy worked to remodel a rental unit on Saint Claire Street that had been trashed by tenants who the couple evicted.
Sometimes a tenant's bad behavior extends to the outside — trash in the yard, discarded furniture, even abandoned refrigerators.
At that point it's the job of the Ashland property maintenance officer to take action if needed, informing property owners of violations to city ordinances through door-hanger notifications.
"We've gotten several doorhangers," said Ron Pajac. "We try to take care of them as soon as we can. That is the key to dealing with the city on this stuff — you can't ignore it; it only makes the problem worse."
Property Management Specialist Christine Luebben appreciates that attitude. Her goal is to make Ashland more presentable, and to do that, she has changed the way problem properties are handled.
It seems to be working, and in a big way. In 2019, with two months left in the year, the city has resolved 1,763 property-maintenance cases. In all of 2017, it cleared just 53.
Luebben and landlords alike attribute that to a new attitude in City Hall and a new willingness among owners to work with the city rather than fighting it.
Getting owners and landlords to maintain their properties was a big task for the city in 2017. The property management specialist position was part time, funded
only during the summer months. Scofflaws who wanted to game the system knew that all they had to do to avoid enforcement action was to wait. By the end of summer, funding for the temporary position ended and the process would have to start all over again the following year.
"There were cases where problems went back as long as 12 years," Luebben said. That changed last year when the position became a year-round, full-time post.
Luebben has made other changes, too. In the past, the threat of a city citation and fine was one of the main tools she had to persuade people to mow their lawns, repair worn out roofs or patch up siding that needed paint. A less confrontational system, emphasizing solutions rather than citations, has been proven an overwhelming success.
"It has been absolutely amazing," Luebben said, pointing to a three-inch-thick pile of resolved complaints that reflected about two weeks of work.
"That's something that is happening every week now," she said.
Luebben said her approach has been to work with property owners to resolve problems. She said most property owners want to have nice-looking residences, but often circumstances prevent them from taking proper care of their property.
Now, rather than threaten an elderly or disabled person who can't mow their lawn, Luebben try to connect the property owner with community organizations that can help with volunteers. Low-income homeownwers who can't afford repairs are steered toward the city's Housing Improvement Program or Community Development block grant loans offered through the state.
Luebben's gentler persuasion has led owners to clear junked cars from the property, demolish unused and falling-down garages, paint peeling siding and more.
"Little jobs, big jobs, you name it, it's all in here," she said pointing at the completed job pile.
Judy Pajac said the city's new approach is helpful for busy property owners, particularly landlords who sometimes aren't even aware of problems.
"When I've talked to her, she says that at least we are trying to take care of our properties. She understands that a lot of the problems we have to deal with are caused by renters. When they leave a mess she has to contact us," she said.
Ron Pajac said they have taken care of all of the issues they have been made aware of.
"She's been extremely fair; if we say we need another week to take care of it, she will give it to us. As long as you talk to her, she's very good to deal with."
Still, the job does sometime require Luebben to draw a firm line, and that can be unpopular. "I may be the most hated person in town, to start with," she said. "But I love my job because even when you tell someone, let's say that their house needs a protective treatment like paint or siding, you will get that grumble there, but you help people find financing, and when the job is completed, everybody's happy. The pride of ownership is there. People call me and say 'You have to come out and see it,' especially when its something they've done themselves."
Luebben said the less-confrontational approach also works better than heavy-handed demands backed up by legal coercion.
"I am not going to demand things of people that I know can't be done," she said. "I am more than willing to work with people, give them more time if they need it. If they lack the financing to do it, Megan McBride, the planning and development director, and I will research the financing that is available. We work with people."
Results are still the important factor, and Luebben said that by that measure, the program is succeeding, and people are beginning to see the changes in the city because of all the cases that have been successfully closed.
"It is amazing how this can turn around," she said.