The Ladysmith School Board met in closed session Wednesday with a developer interested in renovating the former Lindoo Avenue School building into residential rental housing. In the open session that followed, the board heard discussion for and against a concept for developing a community center and housing in the mostly vacant school.
The board met behind closed doors to “deliberate or negotiate the sale of district property” with Lynda Lisenby of Lisenby Properties in Spooner. The company’s website lists numerous market-rate, small community, workforce housing properties it operates in northern Wisconsin communities, including Ladysmith.
Lisenby offered few details on the project after the discussion.
“It’s a little too early to tell,” Lisenby said.
Interim School District Administrator Mike Cox said if the school board decides to sell the school that transaction must be put out for bids.
The board formed a committee of two members each from the city and school district to study the proposal.
In opening the discussion, City Administrator Al Christianson spoke passionately about the need for investigating the adaptive reuse of the former Ladysmith Elementary School as a community center mainly to help stem the effects of declining population.
“The city’s purpose in doing so was to address what it believes to be legitimate ways to attract and retain workforce. This, in turn, is in order to address population decline which, if not done, will mean that an ever-smaller population will need to support city infrastructure developed to serve 5,000 and ever fewer students in schools,” Christianson said.
He continued, “The city is not required by law to do so. The city believes the effort needs to be made for purposes of self preservation. The city also believes it needs to be joined in this necessary effort by this school district, by Rusk County, by the Ladysmith Community Industrial Development Corporation, by other major institutions and by the business community.”
City officials want to tap Community Development Block Grants with matching city funds to develop the facility. After it is developed city officials want the school board to fund continued annual operations through its Community Service Fund 80, which is an self-imposed extra tax levy on school district property owners outside the general education budget. This fund is used to account for activities such as adult education, community recreation programs such as evening swimming pool operation and softball leagues, elderly food service programs, non-special education preschool, day care services and other programs which are not elementary and secondary educational programs but have the primary function of serving the community.
School board member Melissa Rudack asked if the school isn’t interested in maintaining the former Lindoo school property would the city want to lease the property.
“The city doesn’t have a mechanism like the school board does to operate such a facility. We do interestingly have access to funds that could upgrade it and enhance it for those uses, but we don’t have a mechanism whereby we could operate it without doing painful cuts,” Christianson said.
School board member Linda Detra asked why city officials think the development is needed. She cited other empty buildings, and why those are not being used.
Christianson said quality of life amenities are a major selling-point for younger people when considering moving to a community. He told the school board there are from 150 to 200 jobs in the area that go unfilled at any given time, citing there are very few apartment vacancies and businesses have closed recently because they could not find enough workers.
“We are seeing younger people wanting more activities and opportunities for their children, and unless we collectively get together and try and address those needs we are going to continue this slow backward decline in population,” Christianson said. “It is an obligation of this board as it is for the city to address this problem collectively.”
Ladysmith resident Cheryl Patrick spoke against the proposal, saying past building additions based on increasing population projections resulted in debt. She cited the cost of maintenance, heating and insurance costs.
“I am against hanging onto something that is costing us money,” Patrick said.
Christianson said the city’s proposal calls for the school district retaining ownership of about 17 percent of the total structure which includes the gym, cafeteria and principal’s office. The remainder would be sold to a residential developer.
The school board relocated its elementary grades to its facility on Miner Avenue last year in a decision to reduce from three to two buildings to more economically serve declining enrollment. The move left the Lindoo school mostly vacant except for evening and weekend youth sports activities organized by community members.
About $70,000 of the school district’s $180,000 Community Service Fund tax levy this school year goes to operate the Lindoo Avenue property. For Community Service Fund money to be used in the city’s proposal, the school district must retain ownership of the building.
“It’s all tax dollars, and I pay taxes,” Lybert said.
City resident Denise Lane asked how does keeping the Lindoo property benefit the school district. She also asked who would manage the property after it is developed.
“What is the benefit for us not to sell it? Why should we stay in the partnership?” Lane said. “That building needs a lot of work, and it does take time away from these [other] buildings.”
Christianson said the city has access to a maximum of $1.5 million, which breaks down to $1 million in CDBG money and $500,000 city match. He doesn’t think the facility needs to be staffed full-time or even at all, but added someone will need to handle facility use scheduling.
“While we don’t have money to operate it we could conceivably do a $1.5 million upgrade to modernize the building and add features to it that it currently doesn’t have. Going forward it should be more amicable to maintain,” Christianson said.
Ladysmith resident James Younan spoke in favor of the proposal, calling it “an amazing option.”
“I think it is great for the school [district] to be involved. That way you can tie in the education portion with education and tutoring,” Younan said.
“The rec center brings the community together. It keeps kids off the streets and doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” Younan said. “The rec center will definitely help in multiple ways. It is not a matter of should we do it. It’s when should we do it, and how should we do it. It is extremely crucial.”
School board member Chrysa Ostenso said the district already offers facilities, after-school programs and tutoring at its elementary, middle and high schools. She asked if the board should instead focus on its remaining two operating schools and how those buildings can be made more available to the community.
“This is going to be a pretty small little rec center,” Ostenso said.