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Sterling community center comes to fruition

Community project

Posted: July 25, 2012 - 9:00am
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M. Scott Moon
Workers raise a wall Tuesday afternoon during a “barn raising” for the Sterling community center near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Swanson River Road. Organizers hope to have the facility completed early next year.

On a little patch of land not far from the Sterling Highway rests construction both old and new. One end of the property plays host to the area's original one-room schoolhouse and the old, log cabin post office.

The property's other end will soon host a brand new, 13,000-square-foot community center.

"This property belongs to the Sterling community," said Grace Merkes.

On Tuesday, Merkes sat on a chair on the facility's new concrete pad watching as sections of the walls went up one-by-one.

"We are thinking it is really going to help the community out to have a place where they can have fun," Merkes said.

Merkes said the Sterling Community Club has been working for a long time to try to raise the necessary funds to construct the facility. So far they have $1 million compiled from three different rounds of legislative funding and are seeking another $300,000 from the Rasmuson Foundation.

"I think that will be enough to finish it because half of this stuff is volunteer and this building is really a $2 million building," she said.

Bob Oakes, community club president, echoed a similar sentiment.

"We've got a great community," he said. "I mean most of these are volunteers. That's pretty amazing to get that many volunteers out here to build this thing. And we've got a lot of support from the contractors that we have hired. They have donated their contracting fees and we are basically paying for the labor and the cost on all the material."

Among the workers gathered Tuesday were residents from Anchorage and California -- family visitors roped into helping out, Merkes explained with a laugh.

"But they are carpenters, so it worked out really great," she said.

The center will include a large gym with a library, kitchen, bathrooms and locker rooms. Merkes said the group hopes it will be more youth-oriented and that maintenance costs will be covered through rental fees. The club hopes to have the building finished in early spring 2013.

"Hopefully this becomes a nucleus for the community," Oakes said. "You've got the senior center and that's for the seniors and now we are trying to do something for the kids and the middle-aged people."

Oakes said that despite concerted efforts to obtain funding over the last decade, the Sterling community has wanted such a center for much longer.

"I think '64 was the first time, according to the notes and the meeting minutes, that they started looking at putting a building up," he said. Oakes said he started looking at the idea himself more than 20 years ago and what's being built is the fifth design considered.

"This is the most practical," he said. "This is going to be a good facility for the community. It is not too big, it is not too small, it is economical to run, and it can pay for itself -- that's the most important part."

Merkes said the old post office and schoolhouse will play a role in the community center's future.

"We are thinking about trying to refurbish it like it was a school house," she said. "The old school books are still in there. People still live here that went to that school. So we are going to get a lot of information from them and we are going to try to get some historical stuff from them to donate to the project."

The schoolhouse became the area's impromptu community center after the oil boom in the Swanson River area necessitated a larger local school.

"So there were always plans on peoples' minds that they would like to have a bigger community center because (the school house) didn't have running water," Merkes said. "It had an outhouse and we still use that building for meetings."

Looking around the land, Oakes again mentioned the area's youth as the main impetus for the construction. There will also be work done on the ice hockey rink, baseball field and construction of a new soccer field in the area.

"The kids don't have a place to use in the middle of the winter and ... we want to have a place where the kids can go and play in the gym or whatever they want to do on a Saturday morning," he said. "Keep them out of trouble." Brian Smith can be reached at

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kenai-king 07/25/12 - 10:26 am
Pay for itself

Please explain again how this is going to pay for itself. There is not a building like this in Alaska that pays for itself.

mooseriderak 07/26/12 - 11:47 am
We didn't need this

I would like access to the books on the runnings of this so called community center. Bob.... Are you getting paid and if so how much per year? And you much will you be making per year? Pay for itself huh??? Okay....lets see it after its first year of running. Post the info in this Clarion for all to see just how it is paying for itself. This should be real interesting.

AKMary 07/27/12 - 09:59 am
Community Club needs to be investigated

Who are the members of this so called community club? 3 of the board members are in the Merkes family. The contractor for this project is Dennis Merkes-He may have waived his "contractor" fee but I bet he is getting paid thru wages. Also, the Rasmussen foundation also funds Rural Cap which funds the Head Start Program here in Sterling which is ran by Melissa Merkes Daugherty. I understand that Head Start is moving into the "community center" when it opens. The Sterling "community" met a few years ago and voted against any sort of community center. Why has this been kept so quiet? I think the books of this non profit community club need to be investigated and made public just who is profiting here. Why did Dennis Merkes get the bid to build this?

ArcticKat 12/08/12 - 02:51 pm
Sterling Community Club

Interesting remarks from folks I have never seen at a single meeting at the Sterling Community Club. User fees, fundraisers, sponsorships etc are targeted to pay for the Center, love to have you join as a member if you are interested in finding out more. The Merkes family has probably donated more time, energy and money to this community than you could do in a lifetime, but naysayers usually get more press. If you would like to be an informed poster, go to to see whats happening at the club, volunteer to be a part of this great effort, and join the membership. This is going to be a great place for Sterling to gather, celebrate life, have fun and be a part of a bigger community than oneself. Thousands of hours of volunteer effort has gone into this!

Seafarer 12/08/12 - 04:33 pm
It's a Good Thing, Martha!

If the funding is fishy, then find out.

If not, all right! I can see the Sterling Community Center for Men's/Women's basketball leagues, Bingo (maybe, don't wanna cork the Seniors), weddings and large funerals, pancake/spaghetti feeds, Halloween/Xmas events, area-wide flea markets, talent shows, cook-offs, and anything else to break up Winters gloom. It's a Good Thing.

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