What should Heath do with its school building?

  • The Heath Elementary School building on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

Recorder Staff
Monday, December 04, 2017

HEATH — The Heath Elementary School still looks like it did the day it closed: The glass mosaic hand-prints of the children in 1995 still frame the hallway, and the handmade banners of each successive class still line the ceiling. But without children, it resembles a theater set waiting for a cast of characters.

Last week, that cast included real estate expert Mark Abramson of Greenfield and six members of the Heath School Transition Team, who are trying to determine the best possible reuse of the spacious school building.

The school is 25,000 square feet, with internet, seven classrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen, a cafeteria and a gym that is large enough to hold the annual town meeting. It is on 11 acres, which include a ball field. But committee members say the building must generate revenue, if the town were to continue paying for heat, electricity and maintenance. For now, the town is maintaining the building out of the $240,000 settlement it received from the Mohawk Trail Regional School District in return for closing the Heath school and sending the town’s school children to Hawlemont Regional School.

“Right now, we’re coming up with ideas about what might happen here, what might evolve here,” said Brian DeVriese, a Selectboard and transition team member.

Transition team Chairwoman Hilma Sumner said a brainstorming session resulted in “everything from wild-and-crazy to more sensible.”

The brainstormed ideas included a community center, an environmental center or agricultural program; a charter or special education school; assisted living senior housing, a business incubator, low income housing, a conference center, library, theater/film and arts school. Other ideas were for a sculpture park, solar farm, and a campus extension for other schools or colleges. Another idea was that it function as a town business hub, with internet, a store and a cafe. Another thought was that the school could house Heath’s municipal town offices, and that other buildings in the town center, such as the smaller Sawyer Hall, could be sold. The school building could also be leased to a large business, or sold to a private developer.

“Is it going to become a taxable entity instead of a tax hole?” asked Abramson. “Realistically, you’re not going to get a lot of people to put in a bid. But that’s the way it is.”

Abramson advised the group to put out a request for proposals (RFPs) once the town has decided whether it wants to retain part of the property for town use, lease it or sell it. He said Montague sold the old Montague Center School to a developer who is converting that building into apartments, but Abramson pointed out that the developer “knew what his market was, before going in.”

“Montague Center is redeveloping to capture some of the Amherst (rental) market,” he said. “Looking at some of your ideas here, they’re interesting. I will not tell you they are reasonable,” he said.

Abramson said the developer of a large-scale solar farm would probably want three-phase distribution circuitry to access the grid. In most rural areas, only single-phase power is available. But Abramson said he has been approached by three or four solar power developers looking for large tracks of land with good sun exposure and good power connections.

Abramson said there is already plenty of office space to rent in Greenfield that is vacant — despite access to internet, restaurants and other amenities. “This is a day and age where more and more people are working at home. Businesses are saving brick-and-mortar costs, while employees are working on their own heat and electricity. Greenfield has all the connectivity, and I’m still not getting the businesses moving in,” said Abramson.

Abramson said the more realistic ideas include redeveloping the school for either residential use or as the new center for municipal offices.

“It would be easier to sell and redevelop your existing town hall (Sawyer Hall) and use this,” he said. “If you can’t, the second more feasible idea is residential — if there are residents that have lived the majority of their life in Heath, who don’t want to move.”

But if the school building was redeveloped for senior housing, it would probably work better if it were walkable to the library or a grocery store. “This is not easily walkable for an elderly population,” he said.

Abramson saw some promise in an idea that may have seemed more far-fetched to others: an arts center.

Transition Team member Larry Sampson had suggested putting a sculpture park into the building. “Considering the way Mass MoCA has rejuvenated North Adams,” he said, “it could become a draw. It seems to me, nobody would come up here for offices.” With the number of artists living in Heath, he said, an arts center “wouldn’t generate money, but it may generate interest in the town.”

Abramson said, with Charlemont becoming known for its outdoor adventure recreation, Heath might be able to connect with Charlemont as a vacation destination. “If you had an artisans’ building, or working in this space, the tourists could be art-based — coming up here for art classes. Because you’re close to Charlemont, you could feed off one another. If you could find some way to create that dream and do it, then it would be feasible. But you can’t know until you try.”

“The population is what sustains (an economy), but tourism makes a nice bump,” said Abramson.

The Transition Team has a lot of work to do before it can come to annual town meeting with suggestions for how to re-use the building. DeVriese said the town “will have to decide what the building is worth to us, as a town.”

Another step is to find out how much it costs the town for maintenance, utilities and upkeep of all its buildings, for cost comparisons. “Putting everything here (in the school building) would free up the old town buildings,” said Alice Wozniak. “If we could put all our facilities here, our expenses would shrink. This is a 25-year-old building verses an 1817 (Sawyer Hall) building.

“I don’t think you would ever get a town meeting vote to sell (Sawyer Hall),” team member Steve Thane remarked.

“Sawyer Hall is a 4,000-square-foot building,” said DeVriese. “This is a 25,000-square-foot building. We think it costs us $60,000 per year (for utilities and maintenance). How much could we buy for $60,000 per year?”

Abramson strongly recommended putting out a request for proposals. “You don’t know what you’re going to get until you put it out there,” he said.

The Heath School Transition Team — Hilma Sumner, Tom Carlson, Steve Thane, Brian DeVriese, Alice Wozniak, Larry Sampson, Jonathan Diamond and Bill Lattrell — plans to explore possible uses for the building that will generate income, present a progress report to residents at the annual town meeting, and present a final report with recommendations by June 1.