After years of planning and fundraising, Smith River residents, students and teachers can finally see the steel skeleton and walls of what will be their new gymnasium. Welders were putting the last pieces in place Thursday, said Paige Swan, principal of Smith River Elementary School. All the steel has been installed and the gym's east and west walls have been erected.

"It's really exciting," Swan said. "When it's not pouring down rain, the kids see all the progress. Every once in a while one of the construction workers will ask, 'How does it look?' The kids cheer."

Workers also finished the studding on both sides of the building this week, said Rodney Jahn, deputy superintendent for the Del Norte County Unified School District. They put the sheeting up on the walls and are looking to put a roof overhead to keep out the rain, he said.

"Things are going pretty well," Jahn said. "The major problem we're looking at right now is whether the weather will hold."

Once it's completed, the new gym will contain under 10,000 square feet of space, Swan said. It will feature an inter-lock entry system so the cold air can't come in and the heat can't escape. Visitors will walk through the doors into a lobby and will be able to sit in bleachers on both sides of the gym's 50- by 80-foot basketball court. The gym will feature rest rooms, a shower room and a concessions stand. Toward the rear of the gym will be the mechanical room, storage area and emergency exits.

The gym will also serve as an emergency shelter for Smith River residents, Swan said. Funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help pay for a generator.

"Should there be an emergency and no power, this facility will be fully operational," Swan said.

The effort to get a new gym began in 2004. Swan, who became principal in 2005, said volleyball coach Elaine Fallgren was frustrated with the small court her team played on. To serve the ball, children had to step through the doors of the gym. Parents had to either be on stage or peer through the doors to watch their kids play, Swan said.

Fallgren formed a gym committee to raise funds. The principal at that time, Rick Smith, said if the committee could raise $5,000 he would allow the chairman to dye his hair blue, according to Swan. The manager of Ray's Food Place in Smith River said he'd let someone shave his beard and mustache if the committee raised $5,000.

"The first year after it was under way we did everything you can think of from selling tamales to selling cooked crab to having tri-tip dinners and auctions to making calendars done by student artwork," Swan said, adding that in 2007 the school set up a recycling center to raise funds. "We raised about $213,000 as a committee to go toward the gym price. The gym price being right around $2.8 million."

The effort received a huge boost in 2008 when Del Norte County voters approved the Measure A school bond initiative.

"I may have never seen it completed if it wasn't for the bond passed by Del Norte voters," Swan said.

The School Board chose Crescent City architect Jeff Mitchell in 2009 to plan and design the gym. In 2011 the board chose Grants Pass, Ore., company, Ausland Construction Company to build the gym. Construction began in July.

During the gym's construction, a few issues arose that resulted in delays and extra expense, according to Jahn. During the initial excavation, Ausland Construction found and removed an underground storage tank that was used to store heating oil. Construction workers also found an unused septic system that had to be removed.

At their Dec. 13 meeting, School Board members approved an electrical right-of-way. In order to get electricity to the building, construction workers had to put in an additional transformer and bring power lines to the building. That resulted in an extra $11,000.

"Even though there have been a couple of minor delays the project as a whole is going pretty well and is probably a total of two weeks behind schedule," Jahn said.

Construction is expected to be finished in April.

"We're just excited to see the new look for the skyline of Smith River," said district Superintendent Don Olson. "There's definitely a large sign of progress."

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