The city of Columbus has been unable to find any developers interested in restoring the old Claflin School on Fifth Avenue, so unless a last-ditch effort succeeds, ownership of the property will likely revert to the federal government, Columbus Councilors were told this week.
The building, built in 1958, sits on the site of the first public school for black students in Columbus, built by the Freedmen’s Bureau just after the Civil War.
Deputy City Manager David Arrington told councilors Tuesday that the property was originally deeded to the city of Columbus school system in 1880 to be used solely for educational purposes. It was at some point deeded to the Muscogee County School District with the same restriction. The school district used the building for decades, but declared it surplus and deeded it back to the city just over a year ago, as required by the deed.
The deed further states that if the city decides not to use it for education, ownership would transfer back to the federal government.
The building was being considered last year to be used as a potential “one-stop shop” multiple resource center for homeless people. But the homeless advocates decided it was not viable for that purpose, Arrington said. So the city put out requests for proposals to developers to see if the there were any interested in the property.
After several attempts, no interested parties came forward, primarily because of the dilapidated condition of the building and the deed restriction requiring an educational use, Arrington said.
“Based on the current condition of the building and the lack of development interest in the property that would be consistent with the original deed, it’s our recommendation that we transfer the property to the federal government as was directed in the deed and then the federal government can make the decision on the disposition of the property,” Arrington said.
At least two councilors suggested that the city make one last effort by holding a public hearing giving any interested parties one more chance to step forward.
“The site certainly has historic significance to the African-American community, and that’s important,” said Councilor Pops Barnes. “I would hate to see a building like this go by the wayside, as so many things of importance to the African-American community have.”
“I think we should give it one more shot to hold a meeting and see if some individuals in out community who are interested and are very successful and would be able to put some money into this building to help save it,” said Councilor Mimi Woodson. “We should make one more try before we send that letter off to the federal government.”
City Manager Isaiah Hugley said the city would arrange for and publicize such a meeting, but added that even if no one comes forward, there is still hope for the building. If the building goes back to the federal government, it has the authority to remove or modify the deed requirements, making it more attractive to potential developers, he said.
“The good news in all of this is that there will yet be another process once it goes to the federal government,” Hugley said. “They can go through a process and relax the requirement from education to some other thing and perhaps we’ll have some interest from the community.”
Councilor Judy Thomas said that might be the best avenue to take.
“I think everyone recognizes the historical significance of this site and we’re talking about doing something to preserve that significance,” Thomas said. “So if the federal government would untie our hands with the education requirement, we may be able to do something with it.”
Neither the building nor the site is on the National Historic Register, according to Justin Krieg, Historic Columbus Foundation director of planning and programs.