There is bound to be some gnashing of teeth as the Storm Lake Board of Education considers the sale of South School, but if the proper assurances can be had that the developer will follow through with its plan to convert the place to properly-run market-rate housing, it will be the right things to do.
We've had years of talk about converting the South building to a community use, including an imaginative plan from the City to make it a catch-all with a library, art gallery, cafe, business center, fitness center and about everything else you could imagine. It's been eyed in turn as a YMCA, a day care center, a community center, office spaces, retail spaces, a cultural center, low-income apartments and most recently as a housing and training site for homeless veterans.
Every one of those ideas had good intentions and real merit. But there's one thing none of them had: money.
After years of discussion, not one of those community uses is any closer to being realized, and none have dollar one in the bank. We simply have to face the fact that none of our good ideas are likely to be realized any time soon.
If I recall correctly, the City holds right of first refusal on the South property, dating back a few years. But with King's Pointe and other needs to attend to, the City budget is in no position to launch another multi-million-dollar project, and I would suspect the council may be willing to sign off on if sale of the property stands to generate property tax revenue into the future.
The other potential hangup is nostalgia.
South has seen generations of students through its doors, first as a high school, then a junior high, then an elementary. There are going to be people unhappy about seeing the school of their memories turned into an apartment building, and that's natural.
But we have to face reality - the building has outlived its usefulness as a school. It would take a massive amount of money to retrofit it for modern educational use, not to mention a fortune for modern heating, air, plumbing and wiring. Parking and disability accessibility would be major issues even if it were reopened for public use.
We tend to get misty-eyed about old buildings at a time like this. We trot out terms like "landmark" and "architecturally significant" and even "one of a kind."
Let's face it though, while South has some fascinating touches - think the stone sculptures above doors and the timeless auditorium complete with a balcony - it's not unique, beautiful or a historical register-type attraction.
It was built at a time when schools most resembled penitentiaries - rectangular, dark brick buildings cut up by wide interior halls and plastered support columns.
It should be some solace to nostalgics that the development company is known for preserving historical buildings, retaining the basic exterior facades and often even including old showcases, blackboards and other elements of retired school buildings into their designs.
Unfortunately, we are losing space that has been put to public use in the years since school children were relocated to a new elementary - rental space, a gym used for soccer programs, a former classroom that St. Mary's has used as a weight room, the school was even pressed into service as a haunted house last October.
We have spent a lot of money to build a new auxiliary gym and an auditorium at the high school, though, and those should address some needs. St. Mary's has built a new parish building of its own that should give some options. There are a few other rental places around - from the KC Hall to the Chautauqua shelter. Is there anything that has happened at South that would be impossible to do elsewhere?
The alternatives to a sale are few. Saving a building - for what? So we can eventually have to demolish it when windows get broken out or pieces start to fall and create safety concerns? It's solid enough, but with utilities shut down, it's not viable for a long time. It's reaching the use it or lose it time. We've been here before. With the railroad depot, for example, we lost it.
Do we really want to come to the point where the district is spending $300,000 or more in tax dollars on demolition of an old building? We've already knocked down a couple of vacant schools. The money we supply to the district, we count on going into classrooms, books, computers, teacher pay - to educate our kids, not to be doled out to demo companies.
It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it, to be selling a huge building to a developer for one lousy dollar? If it helps, think of it as a net of $300,001, because we're saving that demo expense. Not to mention the bad juju of seeing a building go to waste.
And if we are gaining some nice apartments for a town sorely in need of housing options, growing tax base a bit, maybe creating a couple of jobs to run and maintain the complex - that's gravy.
It would be cool to lean on the developers to do a little more. Leave the auditorium perhaps as a place for community entertainment events, or the gym as a fitness facility. Save a chunk of the surrounding area to be a neighborhood park with play equipment, whatever. They're getting a very nice deal here, a bit of a contribution to the community wouldn't kill them.
We can have a vacant locked-up school building being used for nothing and a lot of talk about projects we can't afford to do, or we can take an old building and make a use for it and give a number of people a nice-looking place to live. And we can do it on the dime of a developer rather than the pocket of the taxpayer.
Not an easy decision, maybe, but the right one.