By Brad Hicks
For nearly a century, what is known as the old Elm Street School has stood tall, overlooking a portion of North Elm Avenue from the hill on which it is situated.
The building was once a center of activity. For most of its first 50 years, the structure served as one of Unicoi County’s schools. For the next four decades after its use as an educational institution ended, the Elm Street School building served as the central office for the Unicoi County School system and the meeting place of the county’s Board of Education.
It has now been several years since the Elm Street School building has seen any regular usage, and the Town-of-Erwin-owned property has fallen into disrepair.
But where many perhaps see a disheveled structure with no potential, Lee Naylor sees an opportunity, and Naylor’s plan to breathe new life into the old Elm Street School cleared a major hurdle on Monday, Nov. 14.
At its Monday meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved a land sale agreement between the town and a group calling itself Elm Street School, LLC. Per the agreement, the town will sell the property to the group for $50,000.
And there are already plans for the Elm Street School property. Naylor said he intends to convert the former school into a residential development.
“We’re excited about the potential with the school,” Naylor said prior to the board’s vote.
Naylor, a developer with the Georgia-based PlanSouth, said he has been in Erwin over the past few years completing restoration projects around town. It was during such work that he came across the Elm Street School building.
“Having been here in Erwin now for a little while, the last several years, I kind of felt like the clock was ticking, so to speak, on the property there,” Naylor said.
Naylor said he spoke with like-minded friends and potential investors about his plans, and the Elm Street School, LLC group was established due to the excitement and belief in the property’s potential that its members shared. Naylor said he also met with town officials, who were receptive to his plans.
The group has discussed the possibility of converting the property into apartments or assisted living space, but Naylor said he has another idea for the site – to convert the Elm Street School building into a loft condominium development.
“The other routes, those are always possible and viable avenues, but I see it as a for-sale product, loft condos,” Naylor said following Monday’s meeting.
Naylor told the board the building’s three floors could be converted to house eight to 10 loft-style condominium units, each measuring 1,000 to 1,300 square feet with two bedrooms and two-and-half bathrooms.
“There’s not really anything in between here and Asheville or Johnson City, so I do feel like it’s a viable market,” Naylor said following the meeting.
Preservation of as much of the building as possible would be a priority in the development project, Naylor said. He said he does not foresee significant changes to the structure’s exterior other than the possible addition of covered parking.
“I just think it would be a shame to take it down, and I think it’s got a lot of potential,” Naylor said.
The Elm Street School was constructed in 1922 and served as a school until 1969. In 1970, the Town of Erwin began leasing the property to the Unicoi County Board of Education to serve as the local school system’s central office. The building continued to serve in this role up until a few years ago. In September 2011, the Board of Education approved a measure to purchase a building owned by Studsvik, Inc. to serve as the school system’s new central office and the school board’s meeting space.
Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said Naylor’s proposal came at the perfect time for the Elm Street School building, as town officials were discussing the possibility of demolishing the structure just days before Naylor approached them.
“I think he was an answer to our prayers,” Hensley said.
Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson moved that the land sales agreement be approved, adding its approval would allow for the preservation of “one of the few landmarks we have left in our town.” The motion was seconded by Aldermen Mark Lafever, who commended Naylor and the group he has assembled for their efforts.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product,” Lafever said.
Naylor said with the agreement’s approval, he now has 90 days to close on the property. He said the next step in the process will occur this week, when architects and structural engineers will walk the site to aid in the development of concept plans.
Naylor said he is hopeful these plans could be ready within the next couple of months and that they would be used to market the project and gauge interest in it. Naylor said if the plan receives a good response, he would like to see construction begin in the summer of 2017.
Naylor also said he is looking forward to getting started.
“It’s a fantastic project, and I hated to let it slip away,” he said.
• • •
The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen also discussed, but took no action, on another property sale proposal.
Property owner John Marotta with Marotta Enterprises, LLC, previously submitted a proposal to the town in which it could purchase the remaining portion of the former Hoover Ball site he owns for $1.5 million. Per the proposal, Marotta offered to purchase the former Morgan Insulation site owned by the town for $450,000.
Restaurants now occupy much of the former Hoover Ball site, and the undeveloped portion of the property has been on the market for several years. The town previously purchased the Morgan Insulation property with the goal of using it as an industrial recruitment tool.
Hensley said the town recently received grant funding to demolish the Morgan Insulation site and prepare it for industrial development, adding the town has received inquiries about selling a portion of the property for retail development.
“I think that we would be better off by sticking with the Morgan Insulation property as opposed to going over to the Hoover property,” Hensley said. “Mr. Marotta has had that property for sale now for several years. I think that we just need to kind of focus on what we have right now before we take on any more property.”
No motion was made to further explore the proposal.