Take a picture, because soon that may be the only way to see the historic Bibb City Elementary School.
The school built in 1915 for families living in the mill village Bibb Manufacturing once owned closed in 2001, after the mill shut down, and it since has been falling apart.
Last winter the roof on the east side collapsed onto the second floor, which later fell in on the first. A drone’s-eye view shows a hole on the roof’s other side, in the rear northwest corner – another leak likely to widen, further eroding what’s left.
Mike Edmondson, the retired science teacher who mounted a campaign to try to save the school, said a damage assessment indicates the building’s brick shell so far remains structurally sound, but once the other side of the roof collapses, that will be the end.
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Time is running out
On Wednesday, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation released its 2018 list of the state’s top 10 “Places in Peril,” and the Bibb City school was No. 2.
The annual list is intended to spur local organizations to save “significant historic, archaeological and cultural resources … threatened by demolition, neglect, lack of maintenance, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.”
“Owned by the Muscogee County Board of Education, Bibb City Elementary is currently vacant and boarded. Part of the roof has collapsed, leaving a significant portion of the interior exposed. According to architects and school system engineers, the building is at risk of full collapse if the roof continues to deteriorate further. Community members and local partner groups are rallying support for an adaptive reuse so that the building can once again serve the community.”
Edmondson said he nominated the school for the list, and hopes the ensuing publicity will draw more support for saving it. He announced in August that he was discontinuing his effort to amass the money needed to clear the hazardous material inside and shore up what’s left.
“Maybe after this designation, somebody will step up and say, ‘Well, I can use this building for something,’” he said.
He had dreamed of making it a center for science, technology, engineering, art and math, commonly represented by the acronym STEAM, with laser cutters and an electrical shop in the basement, and a pottery and glassblowing studio, a hydroponic garden, robotics, photography and coding instruction, and a weather and astronomy platform up top.
That would have cost around $8 million. Edmondson raised around $5,000 he used to pay for inspections and estimates and start a nonprofit Bibb Center Inc., hoping to draw more donations and grants.
He announced in August that he would not be able to raise the funds needed, and instead would use the corporation to provide lab equipment and other gear for school teachers.
Now saving the school can’t wait for millions of dollars to pour in like rain through a hole in the roof. It needs to be cleaned out and covered to arrest the decay.
According to Edmondson’s latest estimates, it would take about $180,000 to clear the rubble and safely remove all the hazardous materials, and around $400,000 to install steel girders to stabilize the structure and support a temporary roof.
Who will pay?
The school district doesn’t plan to spend money on a building it’s not using.
“It’s for sale,” said District 7 school board representative Cathy Williams. “We’re hoping a developer with some deep pockets will come along. … We are actively looking for the next owner.”
According to the district’s property office, the latest appraisals obtained for comparison were $140,000 and $175,000.
Superintendent David Lewis said the district still hopes the building can be sold or repurposed. Edmondson’s idea prompted considerable discussion of the school’s historic value, particularly its place in the Bibb City community. But much of that talk has died down, he said: Maybe the “Places in Peril” designation will revive it.
The school board could donate the property to the Historic Columbus Foundation, but that could give taxpayers the impression the district’s deficient in guarding their money, he said.
He acknowledged that if the school falls in, the district will have to pay for the remaining demolition and cleanup, leaving an empty lot for sale. The district has not sought a demolition estimate, he said.
Elizabeth Barker, executive director of the Historic Columbus Foundation, said the foundation’s board will meet to discuss the school, hoping to work with the school district to come up with plan to save the building.
“It’s certainly a significant building,” she said. It is not listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is included as part of the Bibb City Historic District, she said.
Edmondson wanted to remind those interested in supporting teachers that they still can donate to the Bibb Center Inc. at P.O. Box 534, Fortson, Ga., 31808 — if they want to contribute to providing educators with extra classroom equipment.
Absent more interest, he doesn’t foresee trying to save the school through his grassroots effort.
“We haven’t been able to raise any money for it,” he said. “I don’t foresee restarting the project.”