Take The Initiative

For those who plan to renovate an old building for seniors, the first necessity is not money. There’s no denying that you will need money--plenty of it--in the long run. But first you will very likely need to “mend-and-make-do” in order to pave the way for major grants.

An elementary school built in 1908 and abandoned in 1999 in the Wiles Hill neighborhood of Morgantown, W. Va., is not a pretty site to contemplate renovating, especially for an executive director of a small-town parks system, or its maintenance supervisor.

It’s not that administrators do not like old buildings; it’s that old buildings eat up capital budgets in the blink of an eye. They can become money pits. That’s why school boards abandon them and leave neighborhoods (mostly low- to moderate-income neighborhoods) to deal with them. And that’s why so many of these wonderful old buildings meet the fate of the wrecking ball.

The Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners (BOPARC) bought the abandoned elementary school in 2000, not for the building itself, but for the land, which was designated as the first park on the north side of town. But the old building was squarely on the property, so what was to be done with it?

Demolition was the first option. The abandoned building soon drew vandals like a moth to a flame. Black-ink handprints were left on hallway walls, the contents of filing cabinets were strewn about, and obscenities were scrawled on blackboards.

However, despite several ground-floor windows being broken, the overall physical damage was minimal. Regardless, neighbors became alarmed by the vandalism in their midst and felt threatened and vulnerable. So a cry went out: “Demolish the school; tear it down. Rid us of this nuisance.”

The Old-Man Intervention

“Over my dead body you’ll tear it down,” said an old guy in the neighborhood. He’d been a first grader at Wiles Hill Elementary in the early 1940s, a coal miner’s boy, a professor at the university, a member of the BOPARC board, and a handyman in the way that Great-Depression country boys became handymen. If something was broken, one scrounged up what was needed to fix it.

Nobody had the money to hire anyone anyway. But there were plenty of community folks who were willing to provide good advice and hands-on help to make-do.

The old guy lived less than a block from the school, and played cat-and-mouse with the vandals, neighborhood boys it turned out, who knew him and he them. He caught them one night on the roof of the school, four of them frozen in a flashlight beam. He called them down and sent them home scared to death, thinking he’d tell on them.

The man put a lock on the inside of the roof’s trap door (common on schools in 1908) through which they’d gained entry (the broken windows had since been replaced.). Then the man went to work making the wonderful old building fit the image he carried in his mind and heart.

It did not take much for him to begin receiving offers of help from neighbors, the executive director of the parks system and the parks-maintenance supervisor (who, bringing him paint one day, said, “Here, go and work your magic.”).

And so he and a number of volunteers did just that. In fact, all of the plastering, painting and wood-refinishing work, as well as the building of shelves, removing blackboards and refinishing the exposed brick and a hundred other things, were all done by volunteer labor over two years.

Free Money

The renovation work was a critical first step in taking advantage of a series of funding opportunities that became available in 2004 and 2005.

The BOPARC seniors--housed in another abandoned school across town--were notified that their building would be sold. BOPARC members were prepared to designate the school in Wiles Hill Park as the seniors’ next home.

After the 2000 census, Morgantown was designated a Metropolitan Statistical Area in 2004, which entitled the town to an annual federal grant of $600,000 through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for use as a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). Of the first HUD allocation, $250,000 was designated--over a five-year period--for a new HVAC system in the school. Subsequent CDBG grants put a new floor in the gymnasium and all new thermopane windows in the building. Including the initial HVAC investment, the CDBG allocations reached $330,000.

In 2005, the city council agreed--upon the recommendation of the city manager--to a dollar-for-dollar match of the funds the Wiles Hill Neighborhood Association had raised for the addition of a new handicapped entrance and lobby. Alumni donated $30,000; the two state senators secured grants of $20,000; the Naillor Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant; and the BOPARC seniors themselves contributed more than $100,000. With the city match, there were sufficient funds to give the architectural consultant the go-ahead on a final design as well as to pay for the construction.

In September 2007, the seniors moved into their new digs. Among the various programs and activities available to them are:

• Defensive-driving classes for insurance discounts (AARP-sponsored)

• Income-tax-preparation assistance (AARP-sponsored)

• Watercolor and acrylic classes, beginner and advanced

• Billiards and billiards classes

• Off-site bowling

• Line dancing

• Low-impact aerobics

• Wii games

• Monthly ballroom-dancing lessons

• Weekly square-dancing

• Senior Sophisticates dance troupe (entertaining at events at the senior center, in nursing homes, schools and similar venues)

• Kitchenaire Band (entertaining at venues similar to those of the Senior Sophisticates)

• Helping Hands (volunteer craft group offering community projects to those in need)

• Basketball

• Red Hat Mommas (a social group, meeting monthly at an area restaurant for socializing)

• Wine Tasting

• Weekly Wednesday lunch

• Out-of-town trips (Ireland, Mackinac Island, Mich., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Hawaiian cruise, Nashville, Tenn.); monthly trips to Meadows Casino, Penn.

What’s the moral of this story? Opportunity visits those who help themselves.

The early activities at the old school clearly showed that community members had taken their own initiative, and were well on their way to reclaiming the school when the grants became available. Similar funding opportunities are available in communities across the country.

More often than not, they will be awarded to those who invest the effort, time and limited resources to make the potential of an old building visible to the naked eye of the administrator, the maintenance man, the donor and the community at large.

Follow a photo documentary of the remodeling work room by room at www.wileshillschool.org (see “Renovation Photos” under “Photo Gallery” on the home page).

Frank Scafella served on Morgantown’s city council as well as mayor before joining the Board of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached via e-mail at fas4@labs.net.