SIOUX CITY—Operational changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have prompted the Northwest Area Education Agency to look at relocating its Sioux City headquarters to a smaller facility.
Headquartered at 1520 Morningside Ave. across from Morningside College in Sioux City, the agency hopes to purchase a facility half the size for approximately $7 million.
The site being considered is at 5800 Discovery Blvd., a 52,000-square-foot building occupied by a call center owned by MCI, which moved into the location in 2019 and opened a 500-plus seat call center.
Northwest AEA’s existing headquarters are included in the sale and would be acquired by MCI as part of the purchase.
According to Northwest AEA chief administrator Dan Cox, the agency’s board of directors has been considering a change of location for a year, in part because the building it has been operating out of for the last 35 years is old and too big for the agency’s needs.
“We are in a 103-year-old building,” Cox said. “It’s the first junior high built west of the Mississippi. It’s 104,000 square feet, far bigger than we need.”
The regional agency provides early childhood services and school improvement services for students, teachers and administrators at public and private schools in 10 counties, including all of N’West Iowa. However, due to the pandemic many employees began working remotely, a change Cox said will become permanent going forward as the agency explores more flexible work options.
“COVID helped speed this up as we have embraced some hybrid and some remote work options that just made it even more evident how this building that we have compared to the number of people that we have here on a regular basis is too big,” Cox said. “We don’t need all the space. It could be something else and be utilized more fully.”
About 25 employees work on-site per week, and many of the agency’s services are provided by staff directly in school districts or at regional offices.
Relocating will remedy other shortcomings of the current headquarters, where finding parking and navigating through the building are not ideal.
“We only have about eight spaces out front and we have a side parking lot and a larger one in back,” Cox said. “When people come, most of them don’t actually experience us through the front door, they end up coming through the back.”
Relocation would address those issues and create a modern and vibrant setting for greeting visitors and more flexible workspaces for the agency’s 275 employees.
The MCI call center has a front entrance easily accessible from the parking lots where a reception area could be added. Similarly, conference and event spaces would be located near the reception are to make them easy to find.
A suite for holding student service appointments with parents and students also would be made more accessible. According to Cox, that suite is hard to find in the Morningside Avenue location, despite being frequently used.
“We think moms and dads, teachers, administrators, when they come for events here, they will find it to be a much better process, a much better experience,” Cox said. “Then for our own staff we think this will be a better working environment for them. It’s kind of a win on both fronts.”
Although the pandemic heightened the need to downsize, it also freed up funds for the agency to use for the new building.
Out of the $7 million estimated for the purchase, $2 million will come directly from unspent funds from the agency’s 2020-21 fiscal year budget which came about because of the pandemic.
“Our operational changes with COVID has led to us underspending our budget,” Cox said. “We’re not traveling as much, we aren’t racking up the mileage we would rack up.”
The agency will borrow the remaining $5 million through debt issuance. This will not impact local or state property taxes. Instead, the agency will set aside $400,000-$500,000 in its budgets for the foreseeable future for annual debt payments until it is paid off.
The Northwest AEA Board of Directors approved the plan on May 17, but following through on the purchase is pending approval from the state board of education. Cox said he expects to wait three or four weeks to hear that decision.
If approved, the projected closing date for the purchase is July 7.