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Grassroots effort seeks to save school

| May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

Community members interested in renovating the old Libby High School building are launching a grass roots campaign to preserve the historic structure.

Vicki Flynn Munson of the Friends of Historic Libby High School and a member of the LHS Class of 1963, organized a public meeting held on Monday to discuss alternatives to demolishing the building.

³It¹s important to explore the options and alternatives,² Munson said. ³One of the alternatives is to see what the historical preservation issues are and to identify potential sources of funding to restore the building for adaptive reuse for the community.²

Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance in Helena, was the featured speaker at the meeting. Jiusto shared with the attendees what other communities in Montana have done to preserve historic schools and discussed potential funding opportunities.

³I see a lot of historical buildings all the time and the high school¹s fundamental structural strength looks really sound,² said Jiusto, who toured the facility on Monday afternoon. ³Where there¹s a will there¹s a way. That structure still has a lot of life in it.²

The Libby School Board has been pondering the fate of the building since re-acquiring it when the Lincoln County Campus moved to the former U.S. Forest Service building, having opened its meetings to any individuals or organizations wishing to bring proposals forward.

In February the board gave community member Gary Huntsberger six months to develop a plan for demolishing the building and pull together funding to carry out the project. He originally approached the trustees in December, pointing out that while other groups had expressed interest in restoring the building, no concrete plans had been formalized.

Financially strapped and facing budget shortfalls, the school district would be able to contribute $34,000 budgeted for asbestos abatement, which will have to be done regardless of whether the building is razed or saved.

³We¹ve been saying for years that we¹ll look at all proposals, at all plans,² said board chairperson Teri Kelly at the community meeting. ³The board hasn¹t made a decision, but we have discussed it extensively. We would like to see this benefit the community, but we¹re in between a rock and a hard place.²

Huntsberger has said previously that he will present a solid proposal to the trustees at the regular school board meeting to be held on Tuesday.

The Friends of Historic Libby High School will also be on the board meeting agenda to discuss a proposal for renovation options. Superintendent Kirby Maki and the other board members present at the meeting expressed their collective desire to make a decision that benefits the community, but that would also be feasible for the district.

³We won¹t make any decision until we have the money,² Maki said. ³We have to have a plan that is viable and that would work. But time is running out.²

Structural engineer Scott Curry of TLC Engineering has familiarized himself with the historic building and the technical aspects of possible renovation. He said that estimating the cost for renovation is difficult unless the use of the building is known.

If a new building similar to the current structure was constructed today at modern building code standards, he said the cost would be roughly $4 million. Renovating the building as it is now would include costly seismic retrofitting and other improvements based on the proposed occupancy. Building codes for business occupancy, for example, are not as stringent as those attached to a building housing school children. Curry said renovating the old high school would be a project most likely carried out in stages.

³The reality is that you¹ll have to go a long way into the project before you¹re able to bring something out of it,² Curry said. ³That¹s a hurdle.²

A number of the meeting attendees agreed that forming an entity like the Friends of Historic Libby High School would be a logical first step. Jiusto recommended starting at a grass roots level and gathering seed money that can be leveraged and rolled over into more money.

³This should be a community effort,² Jiusto said. ³It could really be an exciting thing.²

She added that if sufficient funds were secured to demolish the building, that same money could just as easily be used to begin renovation or to mothball the facility.

³There are a lot of scenarios by which a project like this gets done,² she said.

Mothballing the building to arrest deterioration would include providing a source of heat, replacing broken windows, and patching roof leaks, which would be necessary to keep from further deterioration.

If the moisture content continues to increase, mold will begin to develop. A major cost would be to reinstall the transformer and provide electricity to the building. Curry reiterated that ongoing minimal maintenance is necessary even while buying time until the preservation proponents are able to locate funding for the renovation project.

Whether the building is retained or demolished, the site needs to be made secure, presumably by fencing.

³It¹s a liability for the district right now,² Maki said. ³We would like a plan that¹s good for the school as well as the community, but a decision may be made at the next meeting concerning the fate of the building.²

Board member Jerry Frament expressed his desire to see the building saved, adding that his call as a board member outweighed his personal wishes.

³The board¹s main concern is those 1,500 students, not that building,² he said.

The next school board meeting will be held Tuesday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at the Central Administration Building.