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Duo Uses Pepsi Refresh Project Grant to Refurbish Closed School

June 27, 2010

They had a dream but lacked the funds to make it happen.

When Kristin Combs and Michael Nance-Combs of Springfield Township purchased the old Sawyerwood Elementary building on Mohawk Drive three years ago, they dreamed of converting it into a community youth center.

Now, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, their dream is closer to reality.

''A lot of kids that live here don't have any summer activities they can participate in. We have [formal] leagues, but some of them can't afford it,'' Nance-Combs said.

Kristin Combs entered the Internet contest in April with the hope of winning a grant to improve the old building and its grounds. Her idea garnered enough votes to make it one of the best 100 ideas submitted for that month. That automatically put it in the running for the May contest.

By then, word had spread and the proposal garnered enough votes to take first place in a field of 10 winners nationwide.

''Kristin Combs was the first grantee announced from Northeast Ohio,'' said Pepsi spokesman Brett Willi. Other grants have been awarded in Columbus and Cincinnati.

The soft drink company launched the program this year. Rather than buying advertising during the Super Bowl in February, PepsiCo used the money to fund ideas to help improve communities.

The Pepsi Refresh Project is fund
ing 32 ideas for a total of $1.3 million each month. More than 125 ideas have been funded since the project's kickoff. Each month, 30 finalists are awarded between $5,000 and $50,000. Two finalists are chosen to receive $250,000 each month, Willi said.

The local grant will be used immediately to renovate a T-ball field at the school and to build an outdoor basketball court.

The building, last used as a school in the mid-1990s, has been home to a day-care center, a church and the township's administrative offices and police station, Nance-Combs said.

The Springfield school district failed to sell the property at auction in 2007 and eventually sold it to the couple for $5,000.

Even though the building has been in use much of the time since it was a school, the Summit County Building Department is holding off on granting an occupancy permit until the couple complies with a list of improvements. The 21,000-square-foot building, which dates to the 1920s, can't be opened to the public until the permit is issued, Nance-Combs said.

Township Trustee Bruce Killian has helped guide the couple through local requirements to turn the building into a community center and he personally leveled the ball field by tilling up the infield.

''As far as our zoning, he's good to go. It's just the county that's holding it up,'' Killian said last week.

Combs and Nance-Combs, both of whom have full-time jobs, have four children between the ages of 9 and 17. Combs is a legal secretary and Nance-Combs delivers and installs sports equipment.

''It's kind of nice; they really aren't in for any kind of gain,'' Killian said. ''They were trying to do it for the community. It was a goal of theirs.''

Nance-Combs said a $19,000 estimate to build a basketball court was too high, so he will do the prep work himself. A local company has agreed to pour the concrete for $4,100, he said.

Part of the grant will be earmarked to replace 52 windows in the building, another requirement the county is demanding before issuing a permit.

Complying with the conditions that would allow the couple to open the facility has ''been a battle,'' Nance-Combs said.

The windows are a considerable cost that they can't afford on their own, he said.

''You could go to every older school in Summit County and you could shut them down for their windows,'' said former township Trustee Vince Mealy, who has toured the building.

The couple intends to use the balance of the award for a soccer practice field, batting cages and computers for a community room. The money also will be used to pay for utilities and insurance for one year.

Nance-Combs said they have been paying those costs out of their own pockets.

An additional application for an ongoing grant to fund a wrestling program will appear on the Pepsi Refresh Project Web site in July. To vote, go to http://www.refresheverything.com.

Combs and Nance-Combs are determined to make the community center a reality.

''We've just got to take the bull by the horns and just do it,'' Nance-Combs said

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