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Save Old School effort gearing up for election

| April 15, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Those who want to preserve the old Libby High School rather than demolish the building are gearing up their "sell our school" campaign heading toward next month's advisory vote.

The group Friends of Historic Libby High School has printed pamphlets urging the school board to authorize sale of the school. Friends also will hold a dinner and discussion about the issue on Thursday, April 21, at 6 p.m. in the Ponderosa Room at Libby City Hall.

Vicki Munson, a member of the nonprofit group pushing renovation of the building, says it could be used for retail shops, offices, apartments or condominiums, or as an added meeting site for events at the Memorial Center.

"The other reason is that it links the community to its culture and its heritage," Munson said. "Its architecture is nice, it has historic appeal to it."

Meanwhile, those opposing renovation cite the cost to bring the structure up to code. Former Libby School Board member Gary Huntsberger said Friends members are not being realistic about the expense involved.

He also opposes selling public property to private enterprise.

"Should we sell Glacier National Park to pay off the national debt?" Huntsberger asked.

The two sides will collide Tuesday during the Libby School Board's monthly meeting. Proponents of selling the building have been asked to appear to answer some questions about the proposal, including why they haven't had the property appraised.

"Why wasn't that done?" school board chairwoman Teri Kelly asked during Tuesday's agenda meeting. "Was it (lack of) money?"

If so, she asked, how would Friends afford to buy the building?

The question of selling the school district property will go before voters on the May 3 school election ballot. Board members are holding off on a decision about the school's fate until voters weigh in.

The vote's results aren't binding, and some board members don't expect a large turnout because there's no levy on the ballot.

"What kind of a message are we getting?" board member Jim England said.

Betty Jo Wood of Libby Revitalization Inc. said consultants who prepared the recently released Streetscape draft plan for Mineral Avenue purposely ignored the old school.

"They realize it is controversial so the plan doesn't have the school factored into it," Wood said.

She added that Libby Revitalization also has avoided taking a position.

"We can see both sides of it," Wood said.

However, Friends see economic benefits for Libby from restoration.

"If we're trying to revitalize Libby, national studies show that investment in historic buildings always pays off," Munson said. "Land values around them increase.

"It's kind of like having an old Model T car. It's worth absolutely nothing in its diplapidated condition, but restored it's worth a lot."

Munson said Friends approached a Kalispell firm about doing an appraisal, but the company wanted to do a full needs assessment. That would have been very expensive and was unnecessary, she said.

Munson believes Friends' offer to pay the school district $100,000 for the building is a good one.

"They have been very open about the fact that their budget is hurting," she said. "They have places to use that money instead of tearing it down."

She said residents of the school district own the building, and the board would "be remiss" if it let the building deteriorate further.

Huntsberger said Friends is avoiding reality. For example, he said no one from the group has talked to a building inspector to see what's required to bring the school up to code.

"The practicality has never been introduced beyond a whimsical dream," Huntsberger said.

The building may be structurally sound if that means it's not about to fall over, he said. But he contends that's a long way from solving questions about wiring, heating and ventilation, fixing exterior bricks, and replacing the roof.

Huntsberger said Friends has not shown it has money for restoration, or that it knows of investors who want to do so.

Mike Powers of Friends contends there are potential investors. He said "four or five" businesses in Libby have expressed interest in moving into the building, including an engineering company and a logging company.

"It's a prime location," Powers said. "I can't stand to see things torn down for no good reason."