Could the Athens Land Trust take over the West Broad School after all?
More than three years after former school superintendent Demond Means ended a community garden and farmer’s market program at the vacant school, the Athens-Clarke County Commission is circling back to the property as the favored site for a sales tax-funded youth development center.
The West Broad School was the highest-rated location studied by a site selection committee and favored by a majority of residents who provided input, as well. The committee considered about 20 sites, narrowing the list down to three after holding public input sessions, considering comments submitted online and meeting with pastors in the West Broad area.
“It was probably the most positively commented on… but I think that’s probably because it’s the site most people know,” SPLOST Program Administrator Keith Sanders told the commission at a Nov. 10 work session.
The West Broad School—consisting of one 1938 building and two built in the 1950s on about three acres at West Broad and Minor streets—has been a political football for almost a decade. The segregation-era school closed as Clarke County began the integration process in the 1960s, then became the alternative school Rutland Academy, which moved to a new building in 2009. It has sat vacant ever since. In 2012, with the blessing of then-superintendent Philip Lanoue, the Athens Land Trust started a program there where students grew crops on a former ballfield and sold them at a weekly farmers market, alongside vendors from the surrounding neighborhood. In 2016 Lanoue floated a plan to turn the school into administrative offices, which drew criticism because it would have required paving over the garden for parking. Means scuttled that plan, instead proposing an early learning center.
Meanwhile, the Boys & Girls Club backed out of plans for a Vincent Drive youth development center that was included in SPLOST 2011. The commission then focused on the West Broad neighborhood—roughly bounded by Hancock Avenue, Alps Road, Baxter Street and Milledge Avenue—and chose the Athens Land Trust to run it. ACC offered the Clarke County School District $3.2 million in SPLOST funding to help renovate the buildings for a community center in exchange for turning it over to the land trust to operate, with a pledge from the land trust to match it, but in a racially charged 2019 vote, the school board rejected that plan in favor of Means’.
“The whole concept of this community center pretty much started with what was happening at the West Broad School, and it’s clear the public understands this is clearly the best site for that project,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “I just hope the school board will be open to finally allowing the property to be used for the greater community benefit.”
After Means’ contentious tenure ended, the school board also rejected an early learning center plan put forward by his replacement, Xernona Thomas, because it would have involved saving only the 1938 building and tearing down another that historic preservationists argued could be saved. Newly appointed Superintendent Robbie Hooker hasn’t said publicly what he intends to do with the property.
“The years just tick by. It’s like we’re in a Dickens novel, right?” Commissioner Russell Edwards said. “It’s just so sad that what I estimate to be just a handful of voices that are antagonistic against this use right here” have been blocking the project. “I’m just tired of hearing it,” he said. “It should be there.”
Although a CCSD employee sits on the site selection committee, no one from ACC has reached out to the school district. That’s because, as Sanders explained, county staff doesn’t contact landowners until later in the site selection process in order to leave all the options open for the commission, including eminent domain. However, Sanders and Manager Blaine Williams clarified that ACC can’t use eminent domain to acquire another government entity’s land.
That presents a challenge. “You don’t have to Google search very far. This is very controversial. And this is the school district’s property,” Williams said.
Other potential sites include Gresham’s disco and car lot across Paris Street from the West Broad School and a vacant lot at the end of Honeysuckle Lane near McAllister’s Deli. A vote to choose a site is scheduled for March
The youth development center will include a commercial kitchen, community garden, market pavilion and meeting rooms, and provide job training and small-business support for adults and high school students.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.