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County supports preserving old school

| December 8, 2005 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

Efforts to spare the old school building at the corner of Mineral Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard from the wrecking ball have the support of the Lincoln County Commissioners.

The commissioners voted Wednesday to approve a request from the Friends of Historic Libby High School to provide a letter of support for preserving the structure. The group will be taking the letter, along with a similar letter of support from the Libby City Council, to a Friday meeting between the Libby School Board and various parties interested in saving the old school. In addition to the Friends, groups scheduled to be represented at the meeting include the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Montana State Historic Preservation Office and Conover Bond Development, a Spokane company specializing in restoring old buildings.

In asking the commissioners for their support, Friends representative Lee Disney said it's important to be able to show "that it's not as controversial as things are being proposed sometimes."

"Obviously the school board and us are not on the same page as to what to do with that property, so it's hard to get a letter of support from them," Disney said.

The building has been vacant since the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College moved out in 2000. The school board has at various times voted in favor of demolishing the structure as well as to entertain offers for preservation. In a question presented to district voters last May, more than 70 percent of the 899 people who participated cast ballots in favor of selling the building.

Friends had offered $100,000 for the building prior to the election and submitted the same offer following a request for bids from the school board. The board had set the price at $350,000. The Friends offer was the only bid the district received.

In September, the board rejected the offer and again voted to demolish the building. In October, the board agreed to reconsider selling the building after receiving a letter from Conover Bond expressing an interest in the structure.

Built in 1916, the old school is one of few remaining historic buildings in Libby, Disney said.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "Some people will tell you it's an ugly old building, but we think it's a beautiful building and can be rebuilt."

Disney said he thinks the building can be renovated for much less than the $6 million being cited by demolition proponents — the most vocal being Gary Huntsberger, a city council member and like Disney, a former school board chairman. Much of the cost would be covered by "sweat equity" provided by volunteers, Disney said.

"Just to lose it for a parking lot, we can't see it," he said.

Disney said he doesn't understand why the board would want to spend an estimated $150,000 on demolition, "especially when we could have sold it for $100,000 and had $250,000 in our pocket."

Disney said renovation of the building is expected to be a three-year project. The primary focus is currently on providing professional office space, "but that's a reality that can change if someone comes along and says 'Hey, we want X amount of space for X amount of ideas.'"

The city council has expressed interest in moving city offices into the building "as a maybe," he said.

Right now, the Friends just want some more time to work on the issue to see if the building can be saved, Disney said.

"There's demolition time down the road if it can't be saved," he said. "That's always down the road."

Commissioner Marianne Roose said the commissioners needed to clarify a previous vote provided at Huntsberger's request, in support of demolition. At the time there didn't seem to be an alternative, she said.

"I am in favor of preserving," she said. "I always have been."

Commissioner John Konzen said the previous letter signed by the commissioners supported demolition if no other viable option existed. When the letter was written, there were no other viable options, he said.

"I think all along we wanted to see that building stay in existence," he said.

Disney compared efforts to save the old school to the renovation of the adjacent Memorial Gym into the Memorial Center. He noted that the Memorial Center was developed by a group dedicated to the project and funded in large part by a $900,000 federal grant.

Like that project, saving the old school will be a long, difficult process, "but when you get people with a dream, things can happen," Disney said.

Konzen said his main concerns are about the length of time the project has taken and about the potential for a serious investor to put some money on the table.

"I think the bottom line is, I think most people don't want to see it torn down unless that's the only option," he said.

Commissioner Rita Windom provided a brochure detailing a project to rebuild an old school building in Arizona with apartments, studios and gallery space for artists.

"If they can do it, why can't we do it?" Windom said.

Windom moved to support the Friends "in any way that we can."

"Since new information has become available, I think it's an appropriate time for us to extend our support," she said.

Konzen added that the commissioners' support should include qualifications concerning a reasonable timeframe and economic feasibility.