Whitney Peckman: Building could be community center for East Spencer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2016

By Whitney Peckman

Special to the Salisbury Post

In the past year ideas have been proposed as to what to do with the vacated Rowan-Salisbury Schools admin building, an iconic 1920 school that, before desegregation, was all white. People still remember black kids standing outside the fence in summer to watch basketball games, wishing they could play on that excellent court.

In 2015, the Paul L Dunbar Group (PLDG), a non-profit 501(c)(3), formed to apply for a charter school with wrap-around support services for East Spencer. Many of the children bussed out are typically having problems in the public school system. This is not a public school bashing implication. The schools are beleaguered enough without me adding to their plate.

But after our group spoke with Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, explaining the full wraparound services we were prepared to provide — services to mentor, support, counsel and train the families of young children in the area — she agreed that our ability to reach into those families, by virtue of board members and other supporters being familiar with their problems and issues, was probably greater than hers. We believe that we can hand her students at fifth grade ready to compete at the highest level, if we can begin with them pre-K.

PLDG will present a plan with funding assurance and accountability to restore and upfit the buildings as a community center with space for a small school. Though I applaud Mayor Barbara Mallett, the plan presented to her board Tuesday night is fraught with problems, not the least of which are the grant monies required to accomplish a process that could go on for years — while the young children and their families continue to have no community gathering place, no school, no library, no health clinic (a grant East Spencer received a couple of years ago went to a building in Spencer, not East Spencer), no indoor rec center, no job training, etc.

Business as usual until families have no choice left but to leave — leave their families and their history.

Last week it was reported, and confirmed by Dr. Moody, that the school board has committed $50,000 towards demolition of the building. Recognizing that the board has “cradle to grave” responsibility for environmental issues on all properties that once or are now in their jurisdiction (including the three buried tanks at the burned-out Dunbar School), one can understand their wish to decrease liability however possible.

However, PLDG had a local architect do a complete walk-through of the building last fall. It was his opinion that there is no mold problem (there, of course, could be if the building were shut up), and that the asbestos and lead are contained. The boiler is a workhorse and is working fine. There is no central air — how did we ever live without it? — but window air conditioners will suffice. The windows have lost their thermal seals and should be replaced.

The biggest expense would be an elevator to accommodate handicapped access.

And how does cost to renovate and remediate all those problems in the existing building compare to tearing it down and building new, you might ask?

Based on 32,000 square feet of building, at $175-per-foot new construction, to build new comes to approximately $5.6 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of demolition and site preparation. Today I received an estimate to renovate the building as a community center with space for a preschool and K-5 with an elevator of $1,624,936. Hmmmm — $5.6 million or $1.6 million?

Do we allow East Spencer to have its own community center with services which will greatly impact the lives of adults and children in that community now, or do we trust  the vagaries of politics and economics and wait for the opportunity to find investment at the $5.6 million-plus level for something that could take years to negotiate and develop?

This is not hard, not if people really want to see East Spencer thrive. What do you think?

Whitney Peckman lives in Salisbury.