‘Bluejay Build’ house nearing completion

Jared Schmeltzer

At the October Common Council meeting, aldermen approved a property transfer from the City of Merrill to the Merrill Area Housing Authority, of the vacant lot at 402 North Mill Street to be the site of the soon to be completed ‘Bluejay Build’ house.
The Bluejay Build Project is a partnership between the City of Merrill, Merrill Area Public Schools (MAPS) and the Merrill Area Housing Authority (MAHA) to build houses for low income families.
MAHA purchases the lot for the homes and assures students have all the necessary resources to build the house. The students then gain experience at skilled labor jobs and do everything to code. MAHA, Merrill High School and the City of Merrill announced the Bluejay Build Project in November of 2016; placing the first Bluejay Build home at 1102 Van Buren Street, in July of 2018.
MAHA Executive Director Paul Russell said the goal of this project is to keep growing the amount of affordable housing in Merrill.
“The main goal right now is to sustain the building and filling of family homes on an annual basis,” said Russell, during an interview on Tuesday afternoon, Oct.8.
“It’s kind of funny that we are doing this interview today, because the family going into the first Bluejay House on Van Buren Street, just moved in today. The future goal is to enhance what we’re currently doing by maybe building on-site, or making room to build two houses a year. But overall, just to increase production in some way would be a future goal.”
Merrill High School Technology Teacher, Jordan Kratz, is new to MHS this year and has taken over as the head man for this project. According to Kratz the students should be wrapping up work on the house in the upcoming days.
“Right now students are taping some seams and wrapping up our first coat of mud,” said Kratz. “So there’s a lot of dry walling going on right now, a couple different pieces of sheet rock need to be hung yet, but we are getting pretty close here.”
Kratz stated that as soon as the house is moved to its permanent lot, he along with the 12 students working on the house, will get started on the next project house, which they will try to have completed by the end of spring, 2020.
“Now that I’m here, I would like to get these kids on a schedule,” explained Kratz. “This house has taken a bit longer than expected, but from now on I would like to see us complete a house every school year. That’s not an easy task because we only get about an hour and a half each day to work on it rather than a 12-hour work day.”
MAHA Maintenance and Construction Manager, Jeremy Winningham helps teach the kids how to do various things while building the house. Winningham helped students last year, and cited last year’s winter weather and subsequent snow days, as a key reason the house had taken so long.
“Once we get this house moved, we will be starting the next one right away and we are going to try and have it completed by spring so we can get Jordan started on a brand new house in fall of 2020.”
Kratz sees the Bluejay Build house as a great opportunity for students to get job-site experience and a head start on the competition, if they choose to go into the field.
“It’s a great thing for the students to get out and gain experience in different skill trades that are in demand right now,” added Kratz. “There is a huge market for these skilled laborers and they can get some experience and get some pretty awesome jobs after this. The skills that they are picking up here, along with some of the apprenticeship programs with contractors, gives the students an opportunity to do some awesome things.”
Winningham echoes Kratz’s statement, saying he sees this project as a big need for the kids and the community.
“These kids are getting very needed experience in these labor fields, in a safe and controlled environment,” he adds. “We need more young people to get interested in this line of work, because one day the people who are doing this work now won’t be able to. We are giving these students all the tools they need to eventually be small business owners.”
When asked if they will stop building during the winter season, Kratz grinned and shook his head.
“Nope,” Kratz said, “I have talked to the kids about dressing for the weather and that’s something they’ll have to deal with in the real world, so we are gonna work right through it.”
Russell and Winningham agreed that the plan is to have the current Bluejay Build home moved this fall yet, but it may not be easy.
“This time of year is really tough to get contractors to even call you back,” added Winningham. “They are all in such a rush to beat the snow and finish whatever they’re doing.”
“Our goal remains the same” Russell adds. “We are going to really push to have this house completed and fully livable by the first day of 2020.”

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