Meeker torn over the fate of old school
MEEKER — This town’s old elementary school, built of hand-hewn stone through the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s, continued to stand rock-solid even while the one built to replace it was closed for structural repairs.
But the historic structure is on shaky ground now after the town trustees agreed this week to proceed with the process of transferring ownership to Rio Blanco County for possible demolition of the building and construction of a new jail. The town’s action comes even after the nonprofit group History Colorado called for saving the building and offered to try to help.
Many in town aren’t happy over the prospects of losing the historical building, while town trustees and county commissioners said they’re trying to be financially prudent. During a town trustee meeting earlier this week in which the public spilled out into the halls, those debating the issue included many who had attended the school, including some now serving as trustees.
Overshadowing the controversy is the fact that the new Meeker Elementary School that replaced the one now in danger of being torn down had to be shut down during the 2011-12 academic year. That was to allow for repair of lateral stability problems that left it overly vulnerable to winds and earthquakes.
“A lot of those brand-new buildings aren’t worth much,” said Sally Wilson, an advocate for preserving the old school, which was leased to the Meeker School District by the town.
Patrick Eidman, a preservation planner for History Colorado, considers the school important enough that he learned about Meeker’s meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday and drove from Denver in time to be there that evening.
“It’s an awfully special building. This is a powerful piece of history that Meeker has,” he told trustees.
He said the building’s importance is amplified by the fact that the Depression-era WPA also built the county courthouse across the street.
Maybe so, but some are more worried about protecting the town’s future than saving its past.
“If that school has to go to see the town survive, I’m going to see the school go,” said town Trustee Regas Halandras.
He and some others in town worry about the implications for the already-struggling downtown economy if the county builds a jail somewhere other than downtown.
The county needs additional courtroom space and jail facilities that comply with state mandates and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Eskelson said one option is to build an addition to the courthouse, but doing such work on the dated structure would cost an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million more than building on the nearby school site.
Both he and town trustees noted that the trustees’ action this week just opens the door to exploring further the use of the school site. Mayor Mandi Ethridge said more public meetings would occur before anything is finalized.
The issue is exposing disagreements even within families in this small town of some 2,200 people. Danny Conrado is one of the trustees who unanimously voted to pursue transfer of the school property to the county. But that wasn’t before his uncle, Brian Conrado, told trustees, “We are shocked ... to find out what’s going on here.”
“It’s almost like you’ve wanted to sweep us under the carpet and we’re not going away,” he said.
Brian Conrado and others felt trustees were ignoring the fact that a task force a few years ago had worked on ways to save the school and put it to new uses.
But Ethridge said that process foundered when the community came up with lots of ideas but “no singular answer” to what to do with the school. Trustee John Strate said that as often happens with committees, funding also was a problem.
“It comes down to dollars and that’s where people disappear,” he said.
Eidman said that’s where his office can help. It makes $12 million to $18 million in funding available each year for local projects, he said. He said he’d hate to see the building torn down “due to too many options” having been identified by the community for how to use it.
Supporters of preserving the building have noted successful repurposing of schools in places such as Carbondale and Palisade, and have suggested uses for the Meeker school such as an assisted living center, performing arts venue, convention and conference center and Meeker Chamber of Commerce headquarters.
The town now pays anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year for a building it doesn’t use, and is only occasionally used by others, Town Manager Scott Meszaros said. He said if the building were to be put to new uses, it first would require an estimated $500,000 to $1 million in work to address asbestos and lead hazards.
Eidman said there are costs in dealing with hazardous materials when buildings are torn down, and sometimes things such as asbestos can be encapsulated in place during remodeling. But while his agency’s funding is designed in part to deal with such issues, town trustees worried about the ability to find matching funds.
Their decision came after proponents of saving the school told them that other proposed uses of the school would economically benefit the town more so than would a jail.
“It’s happened in other communities. It can happen here, but you’ve got to want it,” Bob Amick said.