Former Deer Creek student looks to buy his former school
Koep has plans of using the building to its fullest
DEER CREEK — Dominic Koep has been traveling the country as a National Guard and Army Guard Reserve member. Currently living in California, he visited his hometown of Deer Creek, Minn., in early January looking to close on his offer to buy the former school. It's where he learned to wrestle, perhaps got into a little bit of trouble and one day plans to move into.
The veteran has over 20 years of experience as a mechanic and now serves as an Army Reserve Career Counselor at the United States Army Reserve. He still has about seven years before retirement but is ready to put his abilities to use to make something very unique of the school he once got his early education at.
It was November 2018 when Wadena-Deer Creek School Board members broached the subject that the local Freshwater Education District would be moving out of the former Deer Creek School the next year to enter their new building south of Wadena. Freshwater started using much of the facility when Wadena and Deer Creek Schools fully consolidated in Wadena. They offered classroom learning largely for students with special needs.
At the time, school board members knew the building was still valuable and had years of life ahead of it — it just needed the right person to buy it and make good use of it. A buyer was not quick to bite on the large, almost 70-year-old building on 7 acres. But when Koep saw the listing, he was instantly intrigued. He soon planned a trip to fly back to Minnesota and take a tour.
“I didn’t even make it through the front doors and I knew I wanted it,” Koep said.
He just had to come up with a business plan — and convince his wife.
“She thought I was crazy,” Koep said. Koep has two daughters, ages 3 and 5, with his wife Amy, to think about in such a purchase. His wife has never left the big city and may be in for a surprise coming to the town of around 220 in the near future.
Koep recalls spending kindergarten through third grade and fifth and sixth grade there at a time when the school district was about to make the move to bring all students to the elementary and middle/high schools in Wadena. Students made use of the Deer Creek School once again after a tornado destroyed the middle/high school in 2010, until a new school was complete.
Seeing someone who wants to make use of the building was music to the ears of Wadena-Deer Creek School Superintendent Lee Westrum.
“I’m pleased that we found someone with a strong connection to the community,” Westrum said. Even so, the pending sale of the building is bittersweet as Westrum recalls the great memories held in that space as a school.
"School buildings, they are full of history and they mean a lot," he added.
The Wadena-Deer Creek School board approved of the sale back in July 2021 and included one key restriction in the purchase agreement, that the building could not be used as an elementary, middle school or senior high school for the next 20 years.
“Which is fine,” Koep said. “I’m not a very good teacher.”
Koep has no plans of returning the property to school use. Instead his short term goals include transforming the school bus garages into storage units and improving the HVAC system. The gymnasium, he hopes, could be used as an event center. He hopes to utilize a portion of the school classrooms for heated storage units. A midterm goal is to use a portion of the grounds, including the football field area, to add housing. He plans to create a space inside the school to live when he retires in about seven years.
“It’s a historic building and I don’t want to see it go,” Koep said.
End goals include creating veteran and senior housing units on site as both are major needs, according to Koep.
“I’d love to build a place for veteran housing,” Koep said. “Just about every state I’ve been to now, I’ve seen a real lack of resources on that side of the house.” He knows veterans are out there in need, but are not likely asking for a handout.
The main focus behind the facility is to bring positive improvements to the community where he was raised while providing opportunities for veterans and seniors in need.
“I think the big thing is doing what you can for your community while still bringing in revenue for yourself so you’re still viable,” Koep said.
Finding a use for the facility was a question on the mind of Deer Creek Mayor Troy Beiswenger. He was thankful that it didn't get to a point where the city had to work to find a use, rather someone saw the potential.
"I don't know what we would have done had Dominic not stepped in," Beiswenger said. In his first year as mayor, Beiswenger is still learning about the town's history and looks forward to a portion of it being saved through this purchase.
"I think he knows what he wants to do and will probably get it done," Beiswenger said.
Even before Koep saw the listing, he was already thinking about finding a place like this in the area and creating something that benefited the area, while providing him some income in his retirement. He plans to lean on some of his family in the area including the Koep and George families, to help him with some remodeling in the coming years. He says he’ll be creating an apartment on site for his mom, Brenda Koep, to stay on site and care for the grounds when he has to be away at work. His dad, Ken, passed away in 2019. He plans to start working on the building in the spring once snow has melted away from the site.
That's still dependent on the sale going through. There has been much back and forth over the property title and making sure all is in order has taken longer than expected. He had hoped to close in early Janurary, but two months later, the deal is not yet done.
For much of the last year, the school, which is located in Otter Tail County, was leased by Wadena County. They converted the gymnasium into a temporary courtroom when the COVID-19 pandemic was pressing the court system to hold court in spaces large enough to allow social distancing. While it took over $60,000 to prepare the site for use, the space was never used as a courtroom. The county items are now moved out and the furniture and TV monitors purchased for the space are finding new use within the Wadena County buildings, replacing outdated furniture.
The Wadena-Deer Creek School District has also moved out but didn’t have much left remaining inside. Part of the purchase included leaving the full school kitchen, which was outfitted with commercial grade appliances. Koep looks forward to being able to make some breakfast in a place he was once served school meals some 30 years ago.