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East Grand Forks Riverside Christian School eyes possible purchase of former Macy's building

New larger facility would accommodate school's growing student enrollment

120122 RiversideMacys.jpg
Riverside Christian School officials (L-R) Scott Johnson, school board president; Cindy Waind, principal of the elementary and middle school; and Tiffaney Primeau, high school principal, are photographed outside the former Macy's department store at the Columbia Mall.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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EAST GRAND FORKS — Riverside Christian School is in the early stages of a plan to purchase the former Macy’s building at Columbia Mall as a possible site to relocate the school and accommodate its growing enrollment.

The school board has submitted a purchase agreement and a letter of intent to the entity that owns the Macy’s building to purchase the property and adjacent parking lot, said Scott Johnson, board president.

“We’re in the preliminary stages,” Johnson said, emphasizing that several things must be secured before the sale can be finalized.

Chief among those contingencies are: the owners of the mall’s anchor stores, Sears, J.C. Penney and Scheels, and the entity that owns the center of the mall must approve the sale, Johnson said.

“We are actually quite a ways along on that process,” said Paul Hensrud, school board member.

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Also, the city will have to make zoning changes to allow a school to be located in that property, Hensrud said.

“We’re doing some testing and reviewing the quality of the building and potential costs associated with demolition, whether it’s asbestos or roof (issues) or those things — that’s the process we’re in right now,” said Hensrud. So far, “there’s nothing that we’ve been surprised with, as far as that building goes.”

Another important consideration is the need to conduct a capital campaign to fund the project, he said. “We’re not a public institution, so we won’t pass a referendum, but we will need to raise money.”

Johnson declined to disclose the amount the school board is offering for the property.

If the deal goes through, the board has estimated the investment would range from $10 million to $15 million, Hensrud said.

“Our conversation has been, if we build it for 500 students, it could cost close to $15 million. If we built it for what we need it today, it would be less — and so that’s why the range.”  

Construction costs have gone up dramatically, Hensrud said.

“From a cost-efficiency standpoint, we think it would be significantly more cost-effective to remodel that current space,” he said. “Our parents, our board, we’re all community members and we would love to be able to repurpose something that’s there. We think that would benefit the community too, if we can get this accomplished.”

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If and when contingencies are met, Johnson expects construction work could take about 18 to 24 months, he said. “The hope is to start earlier than later,” and the school could open in the fall of 2024.

Multi-step process

The Macy’s company closed and sold the store years ago, and that owner subsequently sold it to another entity, said Ryan Brooks, Grand Forks city planner.

The school board could purchase the property, Brooks said, but “the city is going to need more information,” and the project would need to go through several steps to gain final approval from the city.

“Is it possible to get it done, yeah, from our perspective, but it’s not only the city, in this case,” he said, noting that, under the mall’s real estate agreement, tenants would need to agree to that use change. “So there’s a city process and a private process, (and) all of them are tied together.”

The school board is working with construction and architectural consultants to develop site plans to share with the mall’s tenants.

“Generally, people we’ve talked to are not opposed to a school going there, but they want to protect their bases too — and we understand that,” Hensrud said. “They want to see site plans for, particularly, parking and traffic control. Site plans and traffic control are related — where our parking lot is going to be, how are you going to control drop-off zones, those kinds of questions.”

‘Crowded and growing’

The Riverside Christian School Board has been looking at alternate spaces, including the former Sears building in the Columbia Mall, since fall 2021, said Hensrud, who is one of seven board members.

“Last winter, we started looking more seriously at the Macy’s space,” said Hensrud, who owns a financial advising business. “We started seeing the need to consider alternatives — whether it’s a multi-campus or potentially a new building.”

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The school has seen steady enrollment increases in recent years.

“The school is crowded and growing. We’ve continued to grow, similar to a lot of the other private schools,” Hensrud said, citing Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks and some private schools in Fargo-Moorhead as examples.

“We’ve come to a point where we’re running out of space where we are and if we continue to grow, even close to the same pace (and) even if it slows down, we’re out of space pretty soon — which is a great problem to have,” Hensrud said.

In addition to single-section grades, Riverside Christian School has two sections at the kindergarten, first and third grade levels, and its second and fourth grades are full with one section each.

“And so we’d have to find a new teacher or wait list kids at this point for those that are in elementary grades,” Hensrud said.

The Macy’s building, at nearly 100,000 square feet, would allow the school to accommodate about 500 students in grades Pre-K through 12, he said.

The school enrollment is 231, said Cindy Waind, principal of the elementary and middle school. “Over the last two years, we’ve experienced almost 17% growth two years in a row. And over the last four years, it’s been an average (annual growth) of about 13%.”

About two years ago, Riverside Christian added high school grades 9-12 to its facility, with a modular unit, in response to parents who wanted to see their children continue to be educated there.

The high school “has been appealing to people,” Johnson said.

The staff has also been adding extracurricular activities and sports, such as golf, cross country and archery, he said. For example, the school team will be playing Sacred Heart in basketball and the staff is considering adding volleyball in the future.

If the school board does end up purchasing the Macy’s property, it would sell its East Grand Forks property, Hensrud said. “There seems to be a need for that size building – particularly for early childhood and elementary education.”

“We would love to see it continue to be used as a school, if there was an opportunity to do that,” he said.

Advantages of new location

The school’s potential move to Columbia Mall would offer several advantages, Hensrud said.

About 70% of Riverside Christian students reside in Grand Forks, he said. The new location would increase the school’s visibility, and its proximity to I-29 would be a plus. “Longterm, that location may be more central to Grand Forks as Grand Forks grows south,” he said.

The prospect of relocating to Grand Forks is exciting for the school’s staff members, Waind said.

“Moving to North Dakota offers us the opportunity to have room to grow and keep Pre-K through grade 12 all under one roof; we like that,” she said. “We like the family feel that we have. That gives us the chance for mentorship and student connections across the grades, and to keep our family feel.”

Its leaders are excited about the future of the school, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“We’re just very excited and very thankful for the support that we’ve been getting and hope to get moving forward,” Johnson said. “Very thankful for all our donors and our families.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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