New life planned for old Mill Spring School

Published 3:13 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not everything that happens in a recession is bad.

The old Mill Spring School, which was sold into private hands after it was closed back in the early 1990s, became part of a foreclosure sale more recently and is now being offered to the Polk County Soil & Water Conservation District for $1.

Soil & Water chairman Richard Smith and Polk County Agricultural Economic Development director Lynn Sprague envision&bsp; transforming the old school into an agricultural development center, with offices, classrooms, a 500-seat auditorium, and a commercial kitchen. They expect the work to proceed slowly, over about five years, using elbow grease more than money.

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The idea took root just two weeks ago when Sprague learned from Polk County Commissioner Ray Gasperson that the Porter Capital Corp. of Birmingham, Ala. wanted to donate the property for any worthwhile public purpose, with the stipulation that the deal be closed by Nov. 30 so Porter can take a tax deduction this year.

Columbus Town Manager Tim Holloman was the first to hear from Porter, and the idea passed through Polk County Community Foundation, Polk County Schools, and CooperRiis before landing on Lynn Spragues desk. The one-buck deal stopped there.

Porter Capital Corp. senior vice president John Land and Polk Soil & Water chairman Richard Smith signed a letter of intent to transfer the property on Nov. 3.

Smith said the district will perform due diligence prior to the Nov. 30 closing, and could still back out, but all indications are that the estimated 70,000-square-foot building is structurally sound and the surrounding 5.8 acres environmentally clean.

The building had the lead removed in the 1970s and asbestos removed 20 years ago, Smith said. An EPA study found no soil contamination.

Sprague, who will be the project manager, said he has approached the Polk County Community Foundation for a $10,000 grant to pay for deed preparation, surveys, title search, lawyer fees and incidental costs.

This project is a game changer for Polk County and the agricultural initiative supported by the entire community, he said. I think we can do the auditorium, kitchen and classroom space pretty quick. Lot of wheels and deals and we can get that building fixed up.

Smith said after closing, he sees the first three or four months being devoted to handyman, fix-it items and cleaning up the grounds.

The community would appreciate that, he said.

There has been minimal vandalism, even though the building has been abandoned, just a few broken windows.

In the past 15 years, the building has gone through three or four owners. One ran a textile business there, and another hoped to establish a hotel. The building was used for a while by wildlife officers for training, and a dog training school operated there for a time.

The brick building is three stories tall and has some 30 separate spaces, some single classrooms as large as an entire floor of the Bulletin building. A few hundred adults from as young as 30 years of age, now spread across the county, can remember attending school there. Some of the last out wrote their names on the chalk board to commemorate the closing, chalk notes to history that are still visible today.

The name of Phillip Walker,&bsp; a former teacher there who went into real estate, is still on one chalk board, Smith said.

In early December, we want to hold a class reunion there, Sprague said, put up a couple tents, serve food and give tours.

As soon as possible, the Soil & Water staff wants to power up the building and move their offices, along with Sprague and two AmeriCorps volunteers, into four old school administration offices and a conference room. The boiler would likely be turned on again at 50 degrees for the entire building and space heaters would be used for the offices.

From there, the renovation will be one section, one project at a time, Smith said.

What we are not working on, we will close off, Smith said. There are fire walls, so we can work on one section at a time. Any improvement will be a lot better than what is there now.

Sprague sees lots of potential. He said the process used by county economic development officers and the chamber of commerce in trying to assess the future potential of the Grover mill in Lynn last March opened a lot of eyes and paved the way for a quick acceptance of the Mill Spring School project.

Our vision and passion is to make the Mill Spring High School a center of agriculture and community activity for Polk County, Sprague said.

Sprague outlined projects he thinks are realistic, short term, including: renovating the auditorium for community activities; offering space to Isothermal Community College for welding courses, perhaps supported by Duke Energy to train workers for its regional power plant construction projects; classrooms for fire department training courses; storage and office spaces for cooperative extension, recreation, forestry and operations; grants for green items like alternative energy and storm water; a business incubator and a connection to broadband fiber optics.

Items he considers possible, but perhaps a stretch, include: a dinner theater; a farmers market and county products store; alternative energy and heat systems; school and agriculture museums; tourist draw as part of the Overmountain Victory Trail; composting operations, aquaculture operations; specialty wood distribution; old farm machinery restoration for re-use; and access for farmers to coolers, freezers, dehydrators, meat processors and juicers.

It is exciting, Sprague said.

The last county tax assessment, based on the value of a fully functioning building, was $1.8 million for the building and property. Sprague said he estimates, using professional services to do it all at once, it would cost $2 million to completely renovate the building using architects, engineers and contractors.

However, working with elbow grease that is, ingenuity, volunteers and perhaps prison labor he thinks the renovation cost may come in at something more like $300,000.

The Polk County Soil & Water Conservation District is a corporate entity in itself, governed by three elected officials and two appointed. Soil & Water Conservation Districts were set up in the 1930s, after the Dust Bowl blew much of Oklahoma away, as a cooperative effort between state and federal governments to deliver services directly to landowners.

Conservation districts can own things, and can be quite large. Sprague worked in one district in Delaware with a $17 million budget. In North Carolina, the Wilkes and Durham districts own buildings. Others own easements.

Polk Soil & Water has two employees, Sandra Reid and Stewart Walker. Together with their board, they primarily work to achieve water quality in Polk County. They largely depend upon grants. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded Polk Soil & Water $1.8 million for stream restoration work on Pacolet some years ago and also stream renovation grants after Hurricane Hugo.

Soil & Water works on natural resource issues with landowners, Sprague said. Say someone wants to fence their cattle out of a stream. Soil & Water can give technical assistance and also has over $36,000 annually in cost-sharing money.

In fact, Polk County Soil & Water is certified as an enhanced district, which means it can share up to 90 percent of the cost of a project.

Polk Soil & Water helped to renovate pastures during the drought, and has been helping vineyard owners, as well as sod and vegetable farmers, establish environmentally safe buildings for handling their chemical sprays, and giving them a safe place to fill sprayer tanks rather than down by the stream.

The terraced pastures you see at the Mill Spring crossroads were installed many years ago with help of Polk Soil & Water, Sprague said.

Soon, the Polk County Soil & Water Conservation District will be much more visible, as the owner of a historic property right in the center of the county.