The city's plans to turn the old Claflin School building over to the federal government may be postponed if concerned citizens have their way.
About 45 people showed up at a public meeting at the Government Citizen's Center to demand that the city preserve the building as a historical landmark in the community.
City Manager Isaiah Hugley agreed to ask City Council to extend the deadline another six months so the community could have more time to organize and seek out funding sources.
Elected officials who attended the meeting included State Rep. Calvin Smyre, Columbus Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh and City Councilors Bruce Huff, Jerry "Pops" Barnes and Judy Thomas.
Turner said she would work with state legislators and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop's office to see if funding could be secured to rehabilitate the site, but she warned that such grants are very competitive in today's economy.
The building, located on Fifth Avenue, sits on the site of the first black public school in Columbus. It was built by the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War. The original building was destroyed by fire. The current building, built in 1958, can be used solely for educational purposes, according to the deed restriction.
Deputy City Manager David Arrington and Hugley told the group that city staff tried to find a developer interested in rehabilitating the property, but the only developer to submit a proposal backed out. Arrington showed photos of the building's rotting roof and water in the basement 7 feet deep. After a year of seeking developers, the committee working on the project thought it would be best to transfer the site back to the federal government. Arrington said he doesn't think the deed restrictions would apply under federal ownership.
Pace Burt is the developer converting the old Swift Mill on Sixth Avenue into loft apartments. At the meeting, he said he submitted the proposal that called for part of the building to be used for multi-family units and a portion for some educational purpose. He changed his mind because of the dilapidated condition of the building, which would require asbestos and lead removal, he said.
Still, Burt said, he would consider donating money from the Swift Mill to develop a park on the site if the federal government handles demolition and clean up.
But many who attended the meeting said they didn't want the property turned over to the federal government because they feared it would be torn down and the history would be lost.
Edward Howard, a historic preservation specialist from Fort Benning, said he has done extensive research on the old Claflin School while working on a master's degree at the University of Georgia. He said he was told by an expert that the buildings could qualify for the National Registry of Historic Places. Barnes said he wasn't aware that was an option, and he asked Hugley and Arrington why the city hadn't pursued that possibility.
Hugley said he would meet with Howard to find out more. "Look at me," he said, referring to his skin color. "That's my heritage. If we can get a national designation on the registry by all means I want to do everything we can do to get it."
But he expressed frustration that the community wasn't more vocal earlier in the process. He blamed community activists like the Rev. Richard Jessie for not galvanizing concerned citizens earlier, and Jessie said it was poor leadership on the part of government leaders like Hugley.
Jessie said he was aware of people in the community who would be willing to invest in the building, which city officials estimated could cost up to $5 million to restore. Hugley challenged him to provide names.
Nate Sanderson, former NAACP president who is running for a school board seat, said he can't understand why school officials gave the building to the city in the first place, considering that they're planning to build a $15 million fine arts facility. He said the Claflin building is in a prime location and could be renovated for that purpose.
"If this building goes back to the federal government my concern is if that stipulation comes off the history is lost because anything and everything could happen to it," Sanderson said. "They could go all the way from refurbishing it to making it a parking a lot. This is just not African-American history. This is Columbus history. This is U.S. history."