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Locals hear plans for old high school renovation

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | February 9, 2024 7:00 AM

For some it had been years or decades and never for others who were among the group of people that got a recent inside look at the old Libby High School.

The tour, attended by nearly four dozen invitees on Jan. 31, was put on by some of the developers who are seeking to turn the brick structure into an apartment building in the heart of town.

Zach and Tracy McNew made their pitch to the assembled crowd, explaining why the need to preserve and refurbish the historic building is better than tearing it down.

“This is the history of Libby and I think it needs to preserved,” Zach McNew said. 

According to a March 26, 1964, story in The Western News, high school students last attended the old brick building on East Lincoln Boulevard that year before beginning classes in the then-new structure on the west side of Libby.

Built in 1917, the building housed elementary school students following the departure of the high school pupils and finally was the home of the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College before it moved out in 2000.

Libby Lofts developers Mike Berry and Scott Curry were in the process of bringing the structure back to life in 2008 when Berry died in a motorcycle accident.

Lawsuits followed and the building sat empty and unused. In 2017, heavy snow caved in the roof on the east side of the structure. Vandals got in on a few occasions afterward and broke some of the windows.

But the McNews, along with Brick Briar’s Bruce Weatherby and Joan Oakland and Curry, are betting they can bring the 27,240-square foot building back to a usable state. In addition to 26 apartments, three of which would be kept as affordable for teachers, a community meeting room free to use for the public is part of the plan.

To accomplish the $5 million project, the developers are seeking public support as well as cash and grants from various sources.

Their first goal is to fix the wall and roof. 

They are seeking $138,000 from the city’s Community Development Fund to begin work on the old high school. Tracy McNew said the total cost is $184,000 and the remainder would be funded by the partners.

Tracy McNew said that getting the money for the repair and replacement of the wall and roof would allow work to begin and then the building’s value would increase.

“That would allow us to get other loans or funding,” she said.

The developers are also applying for a National Historic Preservation Grant from the state of Montana for $650,000 to restore the exterior of the old building as well as replace and refurbish windows and fix the roof. If the grant is secured, the developers must supply a 20% match.

The money for the program comes from the state lodging tax. The state legislature approved the Montana Museums Act of 2020, which increased the bed tax from 3% to 4%. The old school received its historic designation in 2008 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Grant funding, if awarded by the state legislature in its next session, would be available in September 2025, according to McNew.

Some of the costs are related to the fact the building has historic status.

“That means we have to maintain as much of the original character and design as possible,” Tracy McNew said. “We just can’t go order a bunch of new windows that are different from what is there.”

Someone asked if the historic status is a hindrance to development.

“If we don’t get the historic preservation grant we may have to go another route,” she said. “But this money is getting spent all over Montana, so we’d just as soon see it came to Libby.”

A cafe may also be part of the location at some point, some place where people could have breakfast or lunch, McNew added.

“This isn’t going to be affordable housing,” she said. “We had a doctor come here from Great Falls. He stayed three months and left because there was nowhere to live.”

Zach McNew said at Monday’s council meeting that the apartments would rent for $1,500 monthly, except for the three apartments set aside for teachers, who would pay $750 per month.

The plan is not without some skepticism, though.

Some have cited concerns with the partners due to litigation they have been involved in. Curry’s continued involvement is disconcerting to some because of his history with the property.

Zach McNew has been involved in suits as a contractor and property manager while others mentioned a jury decision involving a fraud case against Libby’s CARD Clinic, of which Tracy McNew is the executive director.

“We know there’s been some bad blood, but we want to build trust in the community,” Tracy McNew said.

During the Jan. 31 presentation, she touted the economic benefits in the short and long term.

“During the construction phase, more than $4 million will be invested in the community supporting jobs with varying roles for at least 50 different people, including local tradespersons and contractors,” McNew said. “Anticipated tax revenues of $15,000 plus $24,500 annually in water and sewer fees as well as an expected increase in property values.”

Libby City Administrator Sam Sikes asked if the green space out front would be turned into more apartments in the future.

McNew said it wouldn’t and added, “There is plenty of parking when everything gets cleaned up.”

Zach McNew said a handicapped accessible elevator will be installed and also mentioned that insurance was purchased last year for the building.

“That wall is gonna be fixed this year, we’re gonna show you,” he said. “We’re gonna do it one way or another.”

    Developers Zach McNew, left, and Bruce Weatherby were involved in the presentation during a Jan. 31 tour at the old high school in Libby. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)
 
 
    Libby Lofts developer Tracy McNew led the presentation during a Jan. 31 tour explaining renovation plans for the old high school. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)
 
 
    Former Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett and state Sen. Mike Cuffe chat during a tour discussing renovation plans for the old high school during a Jan. 31 tour. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)
 
 
    Libby resident and District 1 County Commissioner Brent Teske looks at renovation plans for the old high school during a Jan. 31 tour. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)