CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Some Conway residents want to continue efforts to preserve a long-vacant school building in hopes of turning it into a community center, but the city’s administrator told city council members Monday that demolition remains the only option.
The city of Conway acquired the old Whittemore Elementary School from Horry County Schools after it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Matthew in September 2016. Officials then began discussions about preserving the school and its history through the use of Community Development Block Grant funds.
“At that time, the school district had done an assessment of the school and determined that the only path forward was demolition,” said Adam Emrick, Conway’s city administrator.
Emrick said the demolition is estimated to cost $650,000.
Today, the two buildings on the property remain empty and continue to deteriorate. The school was condemned by the city in 2019, and Emrick said architects have told the city it would cost roughly $14 million to renovate the school, which is filled with asbestos, mold and other hazards.
“There is no option for that building but demolition,” Emrick said. “We have the ability now to find funding and remove the hazard and begin working toward something the community can be proud of. But that is only if we proceed with demolition, because there is no other saving grace for the school.”
Cedric Blain-Spain is among those hoping to preserve the school. He spoke during the public comment period at Monday’s Conway City Council meeting and said community members feel disrespected by the city’s efforts to demolish the school. People feel left out of recent decisions, he said.
“We are now blindsided by the decision to use COVID relief funding to possibly demolish the historic school,” he said. “Is it not possible to halt this execution of the demolition in order to involve the entire community in decisions regarding this historic elementary school?”
No plans for additional community meetings were made during Monday’s meeting, but Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy left the door open for more discussions.
“I think that that’s someone we would be able to do,” she said.
The city held two public meetings in 2018 to gauge the community’s interest in the project, Emrick said.
“The takeaways that we heard from the community was that it was not such much the building that was important, but that the story of the building and the community was told,” he said.
Initially, Emrick said the city hoped to demolish the largest of the two buildings and renovate the smaller one. But he said rules attached to CDBG funding prohibited using federal funds to demolish any portion of the building, or else the city won’t be able to use the money to renovate remaining parts of the structure.
At a city council budget retreat in March 2020, a plan was presented council to “defederalize” the project, return CDBGF funds already used on the project and proceed with demolition, Emrick said. Council agreed, he said, but the demolition did not go forward after funding was not included in the 2020 budget.
The school was discussed again at a 2021 budget retreat when city officials presented a timeline for a possible public-private partnership to include a community center and housing as potentially a planned development district.
“We also discussed having additional public meetings, and council determined at that time, that the will of the community was clear from those earlier meetings, and additional public meetings would not be productive or fair to community members,” Emrick said.
However, funding for demolition was not included in the city’s 2021 budget, leaving the project in limbo.