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COGGON - Using his iPhone camera and flashlight, Michael LeClere peers into a small hole, created by a knot in the decades-old wooden floor of the former Coggon School building.
He's searching for a 'treasure map” he buried beneath the library floor boards as a kid. The map - stained with tea bags and coffee grounds and burned with a match to make it look like old leather - gives directions to a buried jar of marbles.
There are many small tokens there - like pens, pencils and wadded-up paper left by others who passed through the school during more than a century of operation - but no clear sign of the map.
Still, for LeClere, the memories of this place are very clear and it's why he and others in the Linn County city of Coggon - population 650 - continue working to revitalize the building. They got a boost recently as the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
'I don't think we do a great job in this country of pushing preservation but I think we're getting better at it,” said LeClere. 'There is a reason people visit Rome and visit Europe and it doesn't have to be thousands of years old to be valuable to a community.
'I think keeping those parts of your history alive really kind of connect you with the past and help you reflect more on where to go in the future and what's important in the present.”
Built in 1909, the revamping of the school building began after it was closed when the school district finished consolidating with another district in December 2012.
At the time, LeClere needed a thesis project to complete his master's degree in architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. His grandparents told him about the school's closing and a project was born.
LeClere's professors suggested he create a revitalization plan for the building and as he began sending designs and ideas back to his hometown, other area residents and property owners took a shared interest. Eventually, the Coggon Area Betterment Association was formed with the intention of purchasing the school building, turning it into a community center and using the project as a spark to revitalizing all of Main Street.
'I didn't want to see the town just die,” said Dannette Hankins, who helped form the Coggon Area Betterment Association. 'We just didn't want to see that. We wanted to have more pride in the community.”
Joan Edmonds, another original member of the association, agreed. She graduated in 1952 and is one of four generations of her family to attend the school. She later worked as a custodian there for more than 30 years.
'Just lots of good memories with the staff, the teachers we worked with,” she said.
Revitalization efforts already have been fruitful. The building now serves as the Coggon Center hosting events and meetings for a variety of community organizations. Additionally, it provides low rent space to startup businesses such as a bakery and gym. A thrift shop, which donates its profits to the community, is run by local church volunteers.
All of this activity takes place in the school's newest wing, constructed in 1957. With the exception of the gymnasium, the original section of the building and another added in 1936 are not being used.
But members of the Coggon Area Betterment Association have big plans and said the designation on the National Register of Historic Places opens up more grant possibilities.
LeClere and Hankins hope to turn the older wings into low income, veteran or senior housing while keeping much of the historic look and architecture in tact. Hankins said the association already received a grant to complete a feasibility study for this portion of the project.
'... Now we're just waiting for somebody who has some money that wants to invest and do a housing project,” she said.
Additionally, LeClere said the association has put in a grant application with the hopes of creating a community tool library. He also hopes to hold classes for residents like drawing and pottery and fill up the 1957 section with even more businesses.
The association also has the option of applying to create a historic district for its entire Main Street, which includes a classic opera house.
'I think our big picture means there's still more to do,” LeClere said.
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