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ANTWERP, Ohio - Where classrooms and school offices now stand, Thomas McLaughlin III sees a large buffet and $70,000 condos - with barely a blemish to the school's historic integrity.
Yes, the Fort Wayne renovator said, mending the aging elementary school for broader community uses is the greatest challenge of his 42-year career. Just last week, the banks backing him financially pulled out, leaving him to vie for county funding.
But seated at a desk that once belonged to the Antwerp Local School District's superintendent, Mr. McLaughlin outlined his vision for the abandoned building with a can-do attitude reminiscent of one of its earliest renovators: his grandfather.
"Everybody told me I'm a fool," Mr. McLaughlin said in a recent interview. "It is a difficult project. If you don't have the vision as to what this place can be, then to take it over can be scary."
Working around the renovations made 68 years ago by his grandfather - a "prolific" developer who renovated $6 million worth of Ohio schools in 1932 - Mr. McLaughlin said he will also install two-bedroom apartments and an activity area to
be owned an operated by local Youth for Christ and YMCA chapters. Renovation costs will total an estimated $2 million.
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Think about benefits for tenants, Mr. McLaughlin said: a solid brick building with double-paned windows and walls that can withstand winds in excess of 315 miles per hour. Ten boilers can heat different parts of the school differently. And elderly tenants, a demographic he plans to target, can live with the comfort and security that neighbors are a classroom away.
"The greatest challenge?" he said. "Getting people to understand the vision."
But in the five years since the district received $21 million from the Ohio School Facilities Commission to fund a new school, several potential users have fallen through, from nursing homes who couldn't afford it to the contractor who brought Mr. McLaughlin in and then stepped aside because Mr. McLaughlin wanted to go it alone.
The district gave Mr. McLaughlin the building in exchange for his services to build a new school field house for athletics.
"We probably would have been able to just build on, but constantly repairing the old building, that would just drain our permanent improvements fund," said Superintendent David Bagley.
Getting a new school was "something we just couldn't pass up," he said.
Putting the emptied buildings to creative uses when districts can no longer use them tends to save taxpayers' money, said Rick Savors, who heads the Ohio School Facilities Commission. In many cases, it's simpler and less expensive to scrap a building instead of playing constant catch-up as the need for more repairs surfaces, Mr. Savors said.
"Once you start pulling off the drywall, you can find things you never expected," he said. "When we talk about renovation, it's not just slapping on a coat of paint, it's bringing it up to fire code.
"It's a difficult decision. At the end of the day, the question we face is whether the building is educationally adequate."
At least 35 schools statewide are being used for purposes other than K-12 instruction - whether for administrative offices or the former Central High School in Columbus, which was closed in the 1980s but re-opened as a Center of Science and Industry.
Similar collaborations between schools and local organizations have surfaced recently in Toledo, such as a new Start High School in West Toledo that will include a YMCA aquatics center and an improved Bowman Park by 2007.
The organizations will share some operating costs for their shared facilities.
Contact Grant Schulte at:
or 419-724-6064.41.18181 -84.7408