The Duluth School Board held a hearing Tuesday night on the possible closure of Historic Old Central High School in advance of a possible sale.
The hearing was run with the help of Jeff Anderson, Duluth Public Schools’ lobbyist. Only eight people attended the hearing in person to speak about why they were for or against the closure of the historic building, four opposed and four in favor. Community members could also email their stance to the School Board.
The four who spoke in favor of the closure were teachers who work with the Area Learning Center and Academic Excellence Online, both of which are currently housed in Historic Old Central. While all four were for the closure of the building, they made clear they would like the district and School Board to include teachers from those programs in finding a new space if the building were closed. They spoke very highly of the programs, asking the School Board not to end them but find them a new home.
Among the four who opposed the closure of the school was a former student who started her freshman year at Central High School on the hill but ended up graduating from East High School in 2013.
Two Duluth Preservation Alliance members also spoke out against closing the school. Duluth Preservation Alliance board member Bob Berg said he would like to see the building stay in the hands of a public entity. Duluth Preservation Alliance president Mike Poupore said he would like to see the building to continue with its original use of being a school building.
Poupore also said he was worried about who would buy the building, because a major tax credit that can be used to restore historic buildings in Minnesota is about to expire.
The Minnesota Historic Structure Rehabilitation State Tax Credit, which is 20%, is set to expire on June 30, 2021, with no clear path to renewal by the Minnesota Legislature.
The Duluth School Board has a special meeting scheduled Tuesday, Oct. 13, regarding a property sale, according to the schedule. A time has yet to be set for the meeting.
The Duluth School Board had a special closed-door meeting Sept. 23 to “develop or consider offers or counteroffers for the purchase or sale” of Historic Old Central. The meeting adjourned in closed session and no votes were taken.
The Duluth School Board approved putting Historic Old Central up for sale without a list price in January to gauge interest from the private sector. In June 2019, a facility assessment team of three outside companies presented an estimate to the board of the work and investment needed to keep the building up to code. The board was told it would cost about $24 million to fix the exterior, about $11 million for interior upgrades and repairs and another $13.5 million for system repairs and replacements — a grand total of $48.5 million.
Historic Old Central opened in 1892 and was modeled after the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh. The Richardsonian Romanesque-style school was designed by Emmet S. Palmer and Lucien P. Hall.
The building served as a regular high school until 1971 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places a year later. Even though the building is on the register, the district doesn't qualify for historic tax credits if it maintains the status quo.
If the district were to sell the building to a private developer, that developer could qualify for federal and state tax credits as long as the building produces income, like leasing apartments or offices.
The building is also located in an opportunity zone — an area identified as economically distressed where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment through the federal government.
Those currently in the building include district administration, the Area Learning Center and Academic Excellence Online High School. A nonprofit, Companies to Classrooms, also occupies space.