The Muscogee County School Board has sold the dilapidated but historic Bibb Elementary School for $15,000 to former Georgia state Rep. Earl T. Davis.
In an 8-1 vote during its monthly meeting Tuesday night, the board approved Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation. District 8 representative Frank Myers voted no.
The Muscogee County Board of Assessors determined for the 2016 tax year the property’s total market value is $340,680 and its 2 acres of land is $130,680.
Davis represented north Columbus in the Georgia Legislature as a Republican from 1968-74. Now, he has a metal recycling and steel demolition business in Hamilton called Davis & Son.
After stabilizing the building, which has a collapsed roof among its problems, Davis plans to convert the 103-year-old school into apartments or a group home.
“I have no firm plans on it,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Monday.
But he vowed to do his best to save the beloved façade at 96 40th St.
“My commitment to the board is that demolition won’t be considered until every possibility of restoration is tried,” Davis said. “I will say my commitment to this thing could cost me as much as a million dollars. … I’m not a wealthy person, but I can handle the situation quite well. I’m not into this for what I can get out of it. It’s what I want to do for the community of Bibb City.”
During the board meeting Tuesday, Lewis said, “I think everyone up here recognizes and appreciates the importance of Bibb Elementary School to the community and to the Muscogee County School Board.”
The board declared the property as surplus in 2007. In the 11 years since then, MCSD operations chief David Goldberg said, the school district has spent from $6,000 to $10,000 per year to maintain it.
“Since that time, it has continued to deteriorate,” Lewis said. “We looked at several ways to try and maintain that building. The cost was prohibitive in terms of reroofing it and getting into abatement of asbestos and lots of different things. … When you get right down to it, cost avoidance, the liability it represents and seeking someone who would maintain the importance of preserving that facility going forward led us to the recommendation.”
Among the building’s problems, Goldberg said, the roof caved in, the second floor collapsed to the ground level, and vagrants break in despite it being “buttoned up as tight as possible.”
“I don’t allow any of my plant services to go in there,” he said. “I just feel like it’s too dangerous.”
The two appraisals MCSD had done were for $140,000 and $175,000, Goldberg said. The three estimates for demolition and abatement were for $132,000, $187,000 and $354,000, he said.
“Those costs go through the roof,” he said. “No pun intended. So, as you can see, … we’re upside down with this property.”
Davis promised, Goldberg said, “to try to save this building and keep its integrity and get it back up to some use for the community.”
Board vice chairman Mark Cantrell of District 6 said his phone has been “ringing off the hook” and he has read Facebook comments since the Ledger-Enquirer reported the proposed sale price compared to the tax assessor’s value.
To the taxpayers, Cantrell said, “It is our responsibility and on our shoulders to say, ‘What are we doing as far as your money out there?’ You’ve got to have some trust.”
He said Davis told him that, within the next 30 days, if an organization or person has the required ability and finances and offers $50,000 or $100,000 for the property, Davis would be willing to deed it back to MCSD.
“He’s doing this from the heart and soul,” Cantrell said. “He’s doing this to make the Bibb Elementary something of greatness again.”
Board chairwoman Kia Chambers, the countywide representative, said she walked around the property Monday and met a neighbor who told her the property is an eyesore that needs to be torn down. People have been breaking into the building and stealing the wiring, air-conditioning units and pipes for the copper.
“We’re spending almost $50,000 for insurance for this vacant property that is not serving the district,” Chambers said.
The board has declined several requests for the property to be donated, Chambers said. “We wanted to get something out of the property,” she said. “It seems to be a small amount for this property, but when you weigh what we’re going to save in liability, what we’re going to save in insurance, and what we’re going to do just in being a good neighbor … then I think we’re in a good spot.”
District 8 representative Frank Myers asked three questions:
▪ Did the board conduct a formal bid process? “Several times,” said District 7 representative Cathy Williams – but not leading up to this purchase, Lewis said.
▪ Are the improvements Davis has promised to the property in the sales contract? No, Lewis said.
▪ What is the intended use? Apartments, Lewis said.
Myers said everything he knows about Davis is honorable, but he still is concerned.
“This seems a little shaky to me,” Myers said. “So I’ll probably end up being a lone wolf, but I can’t vote for this under these circumstances.”
District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green emphasized the property has been on the market since 2007.
In an interview after the meeting, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis why the school become dilapidated.
“The only thing I can assume is that it was vacant a long time,” said Lewis, whom the board hired from Polk County, Fla., in July 2013. “Our facilities people said it developed a leak and was crumbling ... and it was starting to decay. I can’t speak to what happened from that point forward, but we looked at the cost of reroofing, and it would have been prohibitive.”
The Ledger-Enquirer previously reported that Davis said that “10 or 12 years ago” John Wells, who then was the board’s District 2 representative, offered $75,000 for the property. Wells later told the Ledger-Enquirer he remembers he offered $100,000, “but that was before the roof fell in.”
And he couldn’t have bought the property then because it would have been a conflict of interest.
Wells, who attended Bibb Elementary, said he didn’t have definitive plans for the property but he envisioned apartments or possibly a nursing home.
In a 2014 election runoff, political newcomer John Thomas ended Wells’ 28 years of service on the board. Since then, Wells said, he periodically asked about the property’s availability.
“Every time I talked to the superintendent, he said he got something working on it,” Wells said. “Then I heard it’s being sold for $15,000. What’s going on? … It’s like giving it away. That’s what it is, just giving it away. … $15,000 is almost like you don’t pay the lawyer that much to write up the papers.”
Also dismaying for Wells is the deteriorating condition of the school that educated him in grades 1-8.
“It’s almost incomprehensible that they let it go,” Wells said. “… There will have to be some explaining done. I just don’t understand it.”
Lewis said Wells never indicated he was interested in buying the property in the two conversations he had with him, one when Wells explained how important the building is to the community and the other when he talked about stabilizing the building.
The only solid offers MCSD received, Lewis said, were for “some kind of educational use” but both potential deals fell through on the buyer’s end.
A third effort to continue the property’s educational use came from Mike Edmondson, a retired MCSD educator now teaching part-time at Columbus State University and working part-time as an administrative assistant at Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts. He couldn’t raise the money needed to buy the school and convert it into an “iSTEAM center” for science and arts education.
Edmondson, however, supports this deal because he believes it’s the best the board could do under the circumstances, he said. He called it “unloading a terrible liability.”
“I know people are going to be fussing about the price, but whatever they can sell it for, they ought to do it,” Edmondson said. “I wish him (Davis) well. I do hope he preserves the façade.”
Edmondson said his negotiations with MCSD resulted in two prices for the property he ultimately couldn’t afford, $100,000 and $50,000. He said experts who inspected the property for him and estimated it would cost $193,000 to clean it out and $400,000 to stabilize it. But he raised only $5,000 for his project, so he couldn’t afford it even if he set up a nonprofit organization and MCSD sold it for $1.
“David Lewis, the entire time I’ve been working on this, has been the utmost advocate,” Edmondson said. “He wrote one of the early letters of support. But I don’t know why they wouldn’t preserve it. Maybe they could have gotten more for it.”
Edmondson called the Ledger-Enquirer on Wednesday to clarify he meant “earlier boards” when he said “they.”
Goldberg praised Edmondson’s effort. “He worked very diligently trying to save this building and turn it into something. The cost was just too prohibitive.”
Bibb Manufacturing built the school in 1915 for families living in the mill village. It closed in 2001, after the mill shut down. In November, 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.