The Ladysmith School Board voted 7-0, Wednesday, to offer to sell to the city the former elementary school property on Lindoo Avenue in exchange for $1 and also a narrow 64-acre frontage parcel of city-owned land at the front entrance to the high school.
The board made the offer after hearing a passionate plea from a city alderman to delay any sale of the property to allow the city to seek grant money in an effort to save the site.
City officials envision redeveloping the property for mixed use, mostly by a private developer renovating a portion of the building for workforce housing while also turning the building’s gym, cafeteria and principal office area into a community center.
City officials want to apply for a Community Development Block Grant that, if approved, would result in as much as $1 million in CDBG money to combine with a $500,000 local fund match. They also are mulling establishment of a new Tax Incremental District at the site to redirect any new property tax growth back into the property.
School officials want to sell the property to reduce building operating costs and decrease the district’s potential environmental liability, citing part of the land is the former city dump.
A playground also must remain operating at the Lindoo Avenue site through 2022 under terms of a grant the city received on behalf of the school, according to city officials. It could take at least that long until city officials learn they have been awarded CDBG money and can get its many proposed partners mobilized in the effort to save the site.
Ald. Marty Reynolds pleaded with the board to delay its decision. He listed numerous possible uses for the property over selling it and tearing it down. His list included private development of housing and daycare, establishment of a centrally located city youth and recreation department and meeting rooms for area organizations.
“Tearing it down would be the worst thing in the world,” Reynolds said. “One of the things we are looking at is bringing in younger families. Right now we are having a hard time recruiting young people with kids into this community because they can stay in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls and get whatever they want. We have the jobs right now, but we don’t have the people to fill them.”
He expressed strong confidence in the success of a CDBG application, saying the money can be used for paving, landscaping and other infrastructure improvements. He said there could also be revenue coming in from the sale of the former Mount Senario athletic fields where a new Marshfield Clinic hospital is being planned and potential community center anchor tenants like North Cedar Academy and Power House Youth Center.
“What it amounts to is that for an investment of approximately $500,000 the city is looking at bringing in an additional $1 million of outside money,” Reynolds said.
City officials fear any potential use could be lost if the school is sold to a private buyer.
“Give us an opportunity that we lose as soon as that building goes on the block,” Reynolds said. “At least give us a chance if we can get the grant.”
Details are still quite sketchy how much the school district could be asked to continue funding annually at the site if it is developed as city officials envision.
“If you don’t know now then maybe that is as good a reason to just hold off a little until we get answers to that as well as until we see what outside money becomes available as far as outside dollars like CDBG grants or whatever else,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds told the board CDBG money is not available for a private enterprise, and it would have to be part of a municipal community project to qualify.
Interim School District Administrator Mike Cox probed the possibility of city ownership of the property.
“If the city owned it, [then] they could get the grant?” Cox said.
“If the city owned it. Yes,” Reynolds said. “But it doesn’t make sense for the city to own it because at that point in time do we rent it to you if you want to use the gymnasium?”
Cox also questioned which entity could be on the hook for any liability from the dump that ceased operating on the site sometime around the 1950s. He believes the city, not the school district, is still liable even though the school district now owns the site. He added liability never goes away from a contaminated site.
“With hazardous materials you don’t lose that responsibility unless the land was purchased and the school agreed to accept any and all hazardous materials which back in those days no one was concerned about that,” Cox said.
“The question about who is responsible for that would probably end up in a lawsuit if anyone says that has to be dug up and taken care of,” Cox said. “It is probably not a site you are going to sell for [homes] and digging basements.”
Reynolds told the board the district is likely responsible for the dump.
“You are probably responsible to infinity for the responsibility on that. As was mentioned you are probably not going to want to do a lot of capital improvements as far as putting buildings in there or selling it for residential. That means right now it is probably at its best use which is as a playground, as a recreation area with potential for park that could be done with some of that CDBG money grant that is in the mixed-use grant that we are going for.”
The school district doesn’t use the Lindoo school gym since it relocated elementary classes to its Miner Avenue school last year. The plan was to reduce from three to two buildings to save money and better serve declining enrollment.
This school year, about $70,000 of the total Community Service Fund 80 amount of $180,000 is directly for the operation of the old elementary school. Current building uses are North Cedar Academy, parent-run recreational “traveling team” athletics, scouting and adult volleyball.
“The city is not in a position to buy the building,” Reynolds said.
What if we sold it to you for $1?” school board member Jeff Wallin said.
“I think we would still wind up looking for partners to work on this thing. Would it free up some of those dollars? Sure,” Reynolds said.
The ultimate issue seems to be the ongoing operational responsibility for the facility, according to school board member Brett Gerber.
“The city doesn’t want it. The school district doesn’t want it,” Gerber said.
“The city wants it, but the city can’t afford it,” Reynolds said.
“Can’t afford what though? When you say can’t afford it, what does that mean?” Wallin said.
“We are not in a position to raise taxes to cover operational costs or anything like that. We would have a large number of things to do to make it ready to do something with. Those are dollars we don’t have, and I am not saying you do either,” Reynolds said. “Until we get answers to these things, I am asking [the board] to hold off.”
The city can apply every two years for CDBG money and it has already tabbed its 2020 CDBG grant to help fund street work. It will not be eligible for CDBG money again until 2022.
Reynolds said Rusk County officials have shown interest in applying for CDBG money on behalf of the city to help fund the school project. If this happens, the grant could be awarded maybe by this year fall, he said.
City officials have received some interest in developing housing at the school, most recently from the Spooner developer, Lisenby Properties. Its website says the company has served the housing rental market in rural northwest Wisconsin for more than a decade, originally specializing in rehabbing older, under-utilized, and distressed properties to provide housing at affordable rental rates that are also energy efficient. It manages market-rate, small community, workforce housing properties with a variety of floor plans including several 10-plus unit buildings, smaller multi-family dwellings, duplexes and single-family homes. It has properties in Ashland, Chippewa Falls, Ladysmith, Loyal, Menomonie, Minong, Neillsville, New Auburn, Sarona, Spencer, Thorp, Trego, Washburn and Withee.
Separating the building’s uses could be a major cost for gas, electrical and waterlines. The property also needs other improvements, according to Reynolds.
“We can bring $1 million potentially to do a lot of that including paving [the parking area], landscaping and infrastructure,” Reynolds said. “Our history [with CDBG applications] is quite good.”
After a closed door executive session that included discussion of a land transaction, the board reconvened in open session.
The board voted unanimously to sell the Lindoo Avenue school building and property to the city in exchange for $1 and the city-owned parcel along U.S. 8 at the front entrance to the high school.