New team to bring renewed focus on civic center project

Recent Article from the Northwest Signal

A new executive leadership team has formed to renew efforts to transform the former Napoleon Middle School and Central Elementary School into a civic center.

The new team includes Steve and Julie Busch as co-presidents, Judy Swerline as secretary and Mark Schwiebert as treasurer.

The Napoleon Civic Center Foundation formed in 2012 as Napoleon Area City Schools was planning the construction of a new pre-kindergarten through sixth grade building and a junior high addition built onto the renovated high school. Due to the new facilities, the former Central Elementary School and Napoleon Middle School building along West Main Street was no longer needed by the district. The foundation purchased the property for $1 in the summer of 2017 with the intention of renovating it and converting it into a civic center. At the time of the purchase, all of the renovations were estimated at approximately $2.5 million with a $500,000 contingency, but the group has struggled to raise the needed funds.

Julie Busch said she attended a recent meeting of the civic center foundation for an update on the project that concluded with her discussing how to assist in the effort along with her husband and Pat Bilow.

“We’re just breathing new life into it,” Busch said. “It’s not a long commitment, it’s just getting it up and running.”

Steve and Julie Busch recently renovated the former armory in Napoleon into The Armory Arts & Events Center, as well as created the Emporium venue across the street in the former senior center.

“Everyone knows that I love old buildings, I love The Armory, I love the old senior center and I really love the (John L. Johnson) Auditorium, and I just believe it’s a beautiful asset, it’s a beautiful building that can be saved,” she said. “If we can save these two buildings, that building can be saved.”

Julie Busch said the team will focus on fundraising — most likely through a capital campaign due to COVID-19 restrictions on large events.

“With new faces, new energy, people may get interested again,” she said. “We want to get people excited.”

Julie Busch noted the project was led by the late Ken Neuenschwander and she said his recent passing led to questions about who would be spearheading the project.

“He was their fearless leader, and he was a very, very ambitious person and a great leader,” she said.

Busch noted time is also a concern as the project has approximately a year and a half remaining before the facility is subject to demolition. Part of the purchase agreement with the district included a clause that, after five years, any portions of the building which do not have a certificate of occupancy would be subject to demolition. An anonymous donor pledged the $547,000 for an escrow account which has been set up to cover demolition expenses if necessary, but those funds cannot be used for other portions of the project. Those five years will be up on June 14, 2022, which leaves less than two years to raise the funds and complete the work so they can receive an occupancy permit.

Bilow said the name of the facility is being changed from the Napoleon Civic Center to Cultural Center of Henry County to focus on the entire county rather than only the city. However, Julie Busch said the plans for the center remain the same as they always have.

“Our main goal is fundraising, it’s not to change things,” she said, adding there has been no disagreements with the project trustees. “The board members did a wonderful job, we just want to add new faces to the project.”

The initial focus of the project has been to renovate the auditorium and lower gym to bringing them up to code so they can be utilized and generate revenue to help with renovations to the remaining parts of the facility.

In addition, Bilow said the effort has received a $28,000 contribution from Carol Beck to help with the restart. Julie Busch said the funds will go toward addressing issues such as insurance and an outstanding bill to an architect.

For more information on the project and information on ways to donate, visit