Districts consider options for empty schools

Just down the road from Rogers City Elementary School stands the Grambau Center, formerly Rogers City High School.

It is large, stately and empty. The building’s been completely unoccupied since the district moved its central office into the high school/middle school building in 2013. School board grounds committee Chairman Lee Gapczynski said there haven’t been classes there for nearly 10 years.

“We want to sell it, but we want to make sure that it gets utilized in a good manner,” he said.

The Grambau Center is one of a handful of empty schools in Alpena and Presque Isle counties, and the districts that own them are considering their options on what to do with them.

Gapczynski said the district has no use for the space, although the building is in good shape. The building would make an ideal assisted living facility, or possibly be converted into offices. So far, there have been no legitimate offers. A man approached the board offering to buy it for $1 and turn it into a community center, but later withdrew the offer.

In Millersburg, Case Township has turned an old country school into a community center. Township Treasurer Diane Lewis said the building has six old classrooms and a gymnasium. The township office is in one, a Presque Isle District Library branch is in another and an off-campus locaton for Alpena Community College is in another. There’s also an exercise room, available for $1 a day or $12 per month, and a room where quilters meet.

“We’re real proud of what we’ve done with it,” she said.

Township Supervisor Dean Storms said the township always has owned the gymnasium, and got the rest of the school about four years ago when Onaway Area Community Schools sold it to them for $1.

“There was an awful lot of disappointment when the children were no longer at the building, because there are so many memories from the local people because they all went to school there,” he said.

The school playground is still there and open to the public, Storms said. Eventually, the township would like to build a picnic pavilion to go with its picnic table and park grill.

Alpena Public Schools has two empty elementaries, APS Assistant Superintendent of Operations Diane Block said. Sunset Elementary, on Hobbs Drive, and Long Rapids Elementary, in Long Rapids Township, were both closed in 2010. In 2004, the district closed two others, Hubbard Lake Elementary and Maple Ridge Elementary. It sold both in 2008.

“The county birth rate keeps declining, and our enrollment has dropped considerably,” she said. “Twenty years ago, we had 5,600 students. Today we have 3,800.”

The district is considering rearranging how it uses its buildings, and to help make the decision it commissioned a facility study, Block said. The finished result was presented to board members in January, and the district will be seeking more input on what to do next.

For now, Long Rapids is empty, and Sunset has some furniture stored in it, Block said. Sunset also has been used for training exercises for drug dogs.

“If there’s some exercises that can be done with the buildings, we’ve been open to that as long as it’s not going to damage the building,” she said.

There are costs to keeping these empty schools. For the 2013 fiscal year, APS spent $17,000 on Sunset and $8,000 on Long Rapids, Block said. The former RCHS uses about $500 to $700 in electricity per year, Kirk Schaedig, district head of maintenance, transportation and custodial services, said. Before the district had winterized the building and turned off the heat, it cost about $10,000 per year to keep it heated at around 45 degrees.

If APS ever opted to reopen Sunset or Long Rapids, it would cost a considerable amount to bring the buildings back up to code. According to the facilities study, it would cost an estimated $2,829,380 for Sunset and $1,598,429 for Long Rapids.

While Sunset has an insured replacement value of $4.4 million and Long Rapids has one of $2.7 million, neither one likely would fetch much in sales, Superintendent Holcomb said. The most the district ever brought in for selling a closed elementary was for Hubbard Lake Elementary, which it sold in 2008 for $75,000.

“I think in the short run, the easiest at least initially to let go of would probably be Long Rapids,” he said.

Sunset, however, could serve a new role in a rearranged district, Holcomb said. It’s in a prime location, and could serve as administrative offices, a preschool or the new location for ACES.

One consideration is whether APS would be creating an opening for competition by selling a building, Holcomb said. Bingham, which the district sold in 1989, now houses Bingham Arts Academy. By drawing away elementary students, it hurts APS enrollment numbers, and there’s no way the district can stipulate the future uses of the buildings it sells.

While the facilities study is finished, the discussion of what’s next for APS buildings is just getting started.

“We need to talk to the community over the next year or two about, ‘Here’s all this information, what would the community support, what would be the best way to utilize these resources,'” Holcomb said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.