Even though there is still some work to be completed, Ellis County officials, along with those from the recently formed Cottonwood Extension District, celebrated the completion of the last of three building renovations.

“We’re so excited because we’re done!” Ellis County Administrator and project manager Phillip Smith-Hanes told the crowd gathered in the lobby and an adjacent conference room for a Hays Area Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting at the offices of the Extension district, formed in 2017 by a merger of the Ellis and Barton county Kansas State University Research and Extension programs.

The county owns the building and leases the space to KSU Research and Extension.

The project started in 2013 when the county commission approving a bond for $2.3 million in renovations of a former bank at 718 Main to create the Ellis County Administration Center and voters approved a half-cent sales tax to raise $14 million for renovations of the courthouse and jail and construction of a new emergency services building. That tax ended Oct. 1.

About $250,000 of the funds allocated for the County Administration Center were set aside for the 601 Main project, which included a new reception area, new flooring, ADA compliant restroom, and paint — much of it in K-State purple, of course.

“This is the last jewel on that crown,” Ellis County Commissioner Barb Wasinger said. “I know as a county commissioner, the commission as a whole, we are all so proud of the citizens of Ellis County and Hays that helped us to get these projects done. It’s amazing.”

Wasinger, who was elected in November to the Kansas House of Representatives 111th District was joined by her fellow outgoing County Commissioner Marcy McCllelend. Commission President Dean Haselhorst was unable to attend.

The most noticeable part of the building’s renovation is on the exterior, but the red stucco-like coating over the original brick exterior is more than just cosmetic, Smith-Hanes said.

The exterior insulation and finish systems, or EIFS, is an insulated, water-resistant cladding that is part of the effort to fight flooding problems the building has seen over the years.

The flooding had three main causes and solutions, Smith-Hanes said.

“One was they were getting some water in along the windows, so we have new windows. There was water actually coming through the brick, so they covered it with the EIFS. The third was the way the parking lot was sloped toward the building,” he said.

A French drain on the north side of the building was installed to help with that problem. Other than an area where a roof drain had not been replaced, the building has stayed dry, even with recent heavy rains, Smith-Hanes said. That drain has since been fixed.

The renovation gives the Extension staff more space, as well. The 20,000 square-foot building — which had previously been a popular night club — was purchased by the county in the late 1980s to house Extension and the Health Department. With the latest renovations, the Health Department moved to a facility on Canterbury.

The extra space gives the Extension service conference rooms and offices that can also serve as workspace for summer interns and visiting agents as well as storage for programming materials.

It will also offer an expansion of the Master Gardner program. The program offers education on horticulture, which volunteers then share through community service. The 22 Master Gardners in Ellis County maintain four community gardens in Hays including the heirloom garden at Historic Fort Hays and one in which they conduct vegetable trials at the KSU Agricultural Research Center. They will be replanting the garden along the south side of 601 Main next year now that the renovations are complete.

They will now also have for the first time their own space in the northwest corner of the building that will not only give them a space to meet, but also a room for volunteers to answer questions on the phone.

“The Master Gardners have really worked to clean this area up,” District Director Donna Krug said. “They’re going to offer it as a help desk really for all of northwest Kansas.”

“We envision having this room staffed a few hours a week,” Master Gardner Mary Lou Mastin said.

The help line is an idea used in the Wichita and Kansas City areas.

“We toured the Sedgewick County offices a few years ago, and they have a wonderful setup for their hotline. We said, ‘Wouldn’t that be neat if we could do that in Hays,’ ” Mastin said.

The space still needs some work — carpeting will be installed this week — but the call-in service should be running by the time the spring growing season starts, Mastin said.

“Whenever the horticulture questions start coming in,” she said.

The Cottonwood District is currently searching for a horticulture agent, so the help line could help fill in that gap if the position isn’t filled by spring, Mastin said.

The district is also hiring for a family and consumer sciences agent in the Ellis County office. Stacy Campbell is agriculture agent, Susan Schlchting is 4-H and youth development agent, and Theresa Meis is the office professional.

In the Barton County office, Krug is also the family and consumer science agent, Alicia Boor is the agricultural and natural resources agent, Berny Unruh is 4-H and youth development agent, and Brenda Walton is the office professional.