Canton may have money to demolish former Lehman High, other buildings — News — is

Canton may have money to demolish former Lehman High, other buildings - News - is

Canton may have money to demolish former Lehman High, other buildings

The former Lehman High School, two other dilapidated commercial buildings and at least two dozen eyesore homes may fall with Canton using federal funds that need to be spent by April.

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A few years ago, a flicker of hope held open the doors of the former Lehman High School.

City residents and alumni wanted an investor to come rushing in like thousands of eager schoolchildren once did. The Canton City Schools Board of Education transferred ownership of the monstrous beige-brick building to the city in 2011 as part of a land swap.

The school later was sold for $1 to the Healing and Wellness Center Inc. The wellness center planned to occupy the building, but has yet to secure a financial commitment to bring new life to the aging school.

Some estimates show it would take $12 million to $17 million to renovate the 74,250-square-foot, three-story building at 1120 15th St. NW, said Canton City Councilman John Mariol, D-7. As much as he would like to see the building preserved, Mariol says its unrealistic.

This is the definition of blight, said Mariol, who says the building has brought vandalism and other crime to the neighborhood.

The old Lehman School, two other dilapidated commercial buildings and at least two dozen eyesore homes may fall, using federal funds that need to be spent by April.

UNUSED FUNDS

Council originally planned to use $175,000 of unappropriated general fund dollars to tear down homes that had not come down as part of the Moving Ohio Forward program and wont qualify under the Neighborhood Initiative Program two state-funded demolition programs aimed at ridding communities of residential blight.

Deputy Mayor Fonda Williams, who also oversees the Canton Development Department, has brought news of good fortune to council, though. Williams said the city has $750,000 of Community Development Block Grant funds that must be used by April 2015. The money, issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was originally earmarked for economic development projects. Those projects failed to materialize, leaving the city with money to spend, he said.

Council is considering tearing down at least two homes in each ward. Six other homes will be torn down at the discretion of councils three at-large members. In addition to Lehman school, the other commercial properties council is considering demolishing are the former R.L. Spaulding Corp. building at 1906 Harrisburg Road NE and the former McQueen Sign & Lighting Co. building at 1017 12th St. NE. Council could vote next month to use the $750,000 block grant funding.

Its very rare we find ourselves in this position, Mariol said.

The biggest prize would be old Lehman, which officials from the city and school district have wrestled with for years.

Lehman was built in 1920 and first closed in 1976 along with Lincoln High. For a time, it was used as a middle school, housing students until the new Lehman Middle School was built in 2004. It then was used as an elementary school until the Summit Elementary School opened in 2006.

Page 2 of 3 — Today, the buildings exterior is dressed in graffiti. Chain locks secure its doors and windows remain boarded. For as unsightly as it is on the outside, Mariol said the building is 100 times worse on the inside.

Rick Stewart, president of the Healing & Wellness Center Inc. which took possession of the building in 2011, said the bottom floor has been taking a beating, and ceiling tiles are covered in mold.

A preliminary estimate shows the building could be torn down for roughly $400,000 to $500,000 lower than some other estimates but that excludes asbestos abatement. Mariol said the original structure was built before asbestos was widely used in building materials, but the hazardous fiber may be found in additions built at a later date. Mariol believes asbestos abatement may not cost as much as some once believed, but he wont know for sure until an environmental study is completed to determine where and to what extent asbestos exists.

Mariol supports a whatever-means-necessary approach to funding the demolition. There is precedent for the city to demolish old school buildings using block grant dollars. In March, the city tore down the former Washington Elementary School at 1220 Ninth St. NE.

Mariol believes all of the work can be done before April. He was encouraged about the cost after walking through the building recently with officials from the Eslich Wrecking Co.

The school abuts four wards, including the 1st Ward. Councilman Greg Hawk, D-1, is concerned that asbestos removal will cost much more than Mariol and others expect. It could be sky high, he said. He said asbestos removal has derailed other development projects in the city.

What layed the brake on the Onesto (Hotel redevelopment project) for so long was the asbestos, Hawk said.

SCHOOL DISTRICT PACT

He is also worried about what may happen with the land once it is cleared. The agreement between the city, school district and the wellness center called for the land to revert back to the school district if it was not developed within nine months.

These guys are one step ahead of themselves, Hawk said of his council peers.

Tad Ellsworth, business manager for the Canton City School District, said the revert-back clause was inserted at the last minute. It was intended to prevent the building from becoming dilapidated if the wellness center was unable to renovate the building as planned. However, no administrator or school board member ever expressed interest in executing the clause.

Ellsworth has spoken briefly with the Canton Law Department regarding the contract, which allowed the school district to trade Lehman to the city in exchange for land on 10th Street NW that sits beside the Arts Academy at Summit School. He has yet to speak with other officials, including city council or the school board, about the property. Canton Law Director Joseph Martuccio said in an email Friday officials plan to meet soon to decide what happens next.

Page 3 of 3 — Ellsworth said the school district potentially could lease the 4.25 acres of land back to the city for future development, like a park.

Mariol, standing on the busted steps overlooking the old football field, envisions a playground, community garden and ball fields.

There are a lot of opportunities here, he said.

Reach Matthew at 330-580-8527 or matthew.rink@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @mrinkREP

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