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Published: Tuesday, 1/18/2011

Toledo in talks to save portion of Libbey High

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The city of Toledo is in preliminary discussions to take over the 44-acre Libbey High School campus — but only for its field house, skills center, and athletic field and not to save the 80-year-old main school that towers over Western Avenue.

The city might like to use the two newer structures and football field as some sort of community center for the South Toledo neighborhood. It could become part of the city's recreation facilities, said Steve Herwat, deputy mayor of operations.

He said some major cost obstacles exist to any deal and the talk is preliminary.

A soft deadline looms because Toledo Public Schools must contract with a company to start tearing down Libbey by the end of the year to gain access to several millions in state dollars that would pay for most of the demolition.

Meanwhile, a committee of about 50 Libbey alumni, including City Councilman D. Michael Collins, wants to save all the buildings on the campus, saying the architecture of the 1920s red-brick-and-stone main structure is too precious to tear down.

The committee, which met last night to discuss the efforts, is trying to attract an investor who might want to rehabilitate the main building for use as a senior living center or for some other commercial purpose.

"To see that go the way of the [wrecking] ball and turned into a green field would be a tremendous loss," said Mr. Collins, who is a 1962 Libbey High graduate. "I'm looking at this as an important piece of history."

The committee has been collecting examples from other cities of how early 20th-century school buildings have been saved and used for other purposes.

The committee has applied for the building to be listed on the federal Register of Historic Places. That designation, controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior, could unlock federal grant money for rehabilitating the structure and make it more marketable.

The committee leaders believe the designation might help attract an investor. The group is hoping for a preliminary decision about the historic designation by April.

A government committee in Ohio that makes recommendations about whether buildings and other sites are deserving of the designation asked recently for more black-and-white photos of the school and other historic documents, which supporters contend is a good sign.

"It could create a lot of opportunity for money to come to the building," said Sue Terrill, Libbey class of 1966 and chief organizer of the local group trying to save the school building. "There have been some trends of using school buildings for other things. It's a long shot."

The fate of Libbey has been a central discussion among the five Toledo Board of Education members since they started slashing the school district budget last year.

The school was slated to be closed. But three of the five board members voted to save it early last year, saying the flagging South Toledo neighborhood needs the school as an anchor for its identity and that too many inner-city schools have been closed over the years.

But after a May levy failed, one of three board members changed her vote last summer, saying her support for keeping the school open was contingent on the levy's passage. The revote was 3 to 2 to close the school.

Since then, several groups have formed to press local government officials to save some or all of the school and its campus.

One group, headed by Warren Woodberry, president of the Toledo Board of Community Relations, wants the field house and the skills center to be saved for the community to use.

Mr. Herwat stressed that there has been only one conversation earlier this month with the Toledo Public Schools administration about taking over the two buildings and the athletic field. He said saving the main structure was not part of the discussion.

But the main heating and cooling elements for all the buildings on the campus are inside the main school. If that's torn down — as is currently the plan —paying for a new system to heat the two smaller buildings could prove too expensive, Mr. Herwat said.

"It all boils down to how the city would be able to afford it," he said.

Lisa Sobecki, the school board member who heads the committee in charge of new school construction and the Libbey demolition, among others, said community groups need to join forces and push for a unified goal.

"The bigger question is, what do they want?" she said. "There are different groups out there. I think it's important for people to get on the same page."

She and other board members said the district can't afford to keep the school open and also can't afford to delay demolition and risk losing state money set aside for that purpose.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or: 419-724-6134.



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