October 31, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The sounds of children playing and laughing could soon return to Riveria Elementary School's gym.

The La Grande School District might lease the gym on the city's north side for use by Community Connection of Northeast Oregon.

If that should happen, Community Connection's Kids Club would move into the gym by early December.

The gym has had little activity since June when the La Grande School District permanently closed the school.

Kids Club is a year-round day-care program based at the Valley Fellowship building, the former National Guard Armory on Palmer Avenue.

Margaret Davidson, Community Connection's executive director, said that moving to Riveria's gym would provide Kids Club with more space.

"It is a great location and it would allow us to serve more children,'' Davidson said.

Community Connection is also interested in the gym because it has classrooms and a kitchen. The non-profit organization would have access to Riveria's fields if a lease agreement is signed.

A number of steps must be taken before Kids Club can move to the gym. La Grande's planning commission must issue a conditional use permit allowing the gym to be used as a day-care center and the La Grande School Board must approve the lease.

The proposed lease would run through June 30.

Davidson said Community Connection's long-term objective is to purchase the gym.

"We want to see the building retained as a community focal point,'' Davidson said.

Community Connection runs Kids Club, the Union County Senior Center and Union County's food bank.

The La Grande School Board closed Riveria's 90-year-old classroom building because of its poor condition, and the school district might tear it down.

Riveria's gym, constructed about 50 years ago, is in better condition and will not be torn down.

Kids Club has been operating since the mid-1990s. The program was located at Willow Elementary School before it moved to Valley Fellowship, 507 Palmer Ave., last fall.

Community Connection will have to provide a new source of heat for the gym if it leases the building. The gym was previously heated by a boiler system in Riveria's classroom building. The school district has shut down the boiler to save money.

Gary Howland, La Grande School District's plant operations director, said that using the boiler to heat the gym would be very inefficient, as the gym cannot be warmed by the boiler without also heating the school building.

Howland said that Community Connection would have to install a heating system for the gym.

Community Connection would not have to worry about the two classrooms in the gym building since they each have their own heating system.

Should Community Connection be granted a lease, one of the organizations it would be working with at Riveria would be the Grande Ronde Association for Youth (GRAY). The organization is a coalition of independent sports organizations that includes representatives of the Optimist Club, the La Grande Little League, the Union County Youth Soccer Association, ASA Softball, La Grande Babe Ruth, AAU Basketball and American Legion baseball.

Community Connection and GRAY would share the use of Riveria's gym and fields.