Former students will miss the memories but see value of Gurnee Grade School demolition
Knowing it was the right thing to do helped, but for many who gathered Monday to mark the beginning of the end of the stomping grounds of their youth, the visit to Gurnee Grade School came with mixed emotions.
Many former students were among a contingent of about 125 officials and politicians of all stripes, who assembled beneath a tent behind the building on Kilbourne Road near the Des Plaines River for a last look before air horns blared and the demolition of the flood-prone building began.
"My mom went here. My sister went here. My cousins went here. We've all paraded through these halls at one time or another," said Gurnee resident Lynn Spaid, who took the day off from work for the occasion.
Spaid attended from 1978 to 1984 and made lifelong friends during that time. Like others of different eras who came to say goodbye, she remembered the names of teachers and other odds and ends of a youngster's formative years.
"It's kind of sad when your entire family goes here," she said. "I get why they're doing it — it makes sense. But it's kind of bittersweet."
The tranquil, sunny morning was a far cry from the familiar scenes of volunteers slinging sandbags to hold back advancing floodwater. Built in 1954 before flood plains were mapped and the potential dangers known, Gurnee Grade School has become a more frequent target as the watershed changed and storms intensified.
"It seemed kind of futile," Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik said of one flooding scene. She recalled that U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, then a congressman, visited and asked if there was anything he could do. "I said, 'Help me get this damn school out of here.'"
There were times when students had to be relocated. And at an estimated $300,000 per response, partners in local, state and federal governments in 2008 began working toward a permanent fix.
"Removing this building is the only real solution," said Mike Warner, executive director of the Lake County Stormwater Management Agency, which was credited with a key role in the effort. "Where we're standing today was flooded in April."
Several speakers hailed the project as an example of what government can do when working together. Voters in Gurnee Elementary District 56 also were credited for approving a tax hike to build Prairie Trail School in Wadsworth. That allowed Gurnee Elementary to be closed last January.
"There are a lot of great memories in that building — a lot of wonderful moments that occurred in that building but it was time to move on," Superintendent John Hutton said.
Former students came with cameras to document the day and receive bricks as mementos.
Donna Cuilla, who sent three children to the school, got four bricks. She said it was sad this had to happen, but it was for the greater good.
"It's just kind of difficult to know it's not going to be here anymore," she said.
"It's part of our past. It's part of our history," added Julie Edwards, a Lake Villa resident, who came Monday with her sister, Laura Martin. All seven children in their family attended Gurnee Grade School.
The site will be transformed into a park to include two soccer fields, paths, a shelter and other amenities. Warner said the site is designed to flood and will be able to capture much more water than has been the case, relieving the pressure downstream.
The purchase of the school and property from District 56, its demolition and site restoration is funded with a $3.2 million federal grant administered by the state and a $750,000 Illinois Emergency Management Agency grant.
The school district and Gurnee Park District each will each contribute $75,000 toward site preparation and $200,000 to improvements.
"We will create new memories," said Susie Kuruvilla, executive director of the park district. "It's going to be a different use but still a community use."
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