The Duluth School Board unanimously approved a resolution to move forward with the sale of Historic Old Central High School Tuesday.
The resolution directs the Duluth Public Schools administration to finalize a purchase agreement for the sale of the property and "authorizes the School Board chair to execute the purchase agreement and all other documents required for the closing and to convey the property."
This decision was made after the School Board held a closed-door discussion on the matter for an hour Tuesday night.
“This is an exciting development in the history of HOCHS and for our downtown Duluth,” Board Chair Jill Lofald said in a news release. “It will allow new life to be breathed into this building and provide an opportunity for the district to focus resources on education and the needs of Duluth children and families.”
Once a purchase agreement is finalized and signed, more details regarding a sale will be made public. A purchase agreement will allow a buyer to conduct due diligence prior to closing on a property and could take up to a year to finalize, especially due to the complexity of applying for historic tax credits as well as other financing options.
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.
Because Historic Old Central is on the National Register of Historic Places, any developer of the building could potentially get approved for historic tax credits to renovate the building. The federal government offers a 20% tax credit. The state of Minnesota also offers a 20% tax credit, but the state’s historic tax credit will expire June 30 if legislative action is not taken before then to renew it.
According to News Tribune reporting, the State Historic Preservation Office has held conversations with a developer who is “very serious” about using the historic tax credit for Historic Old Central. But, considering the average length of application time and needed response time, they likely need to submit a complete application by January, Natascha Wiener, a historical architect with the State Historic Preservation Office, told the News Tribune.
Until the district closes on the sale of the property, either the developer or the district can back out of the agreement.
Superintendent John Magas would not say whether or not the district had a current offer on the building, but did say “people are interested” in the building.
Magas said the district administration will continue to collaborate on a plan for staff and programs currently housed in Historic Old Central if a sale were to occur. Those currently housed in the building include Academic Excellence Online, Area Learning Center, Adult Basic Education and district administration.
Magas said there is no intention to eliminate any of the programs currently housed in the building, but if relocation were necessary he would work with the programs to envision what possible changes were necessary to meet their needs and make the programs even stronger and better.
“I've actually been part of the relocation, revisioning and redesigning what several different alternative schools look like in previous positions,” Magas said. “So I think it's really important that we come together and we take the time to go deep with conversations with all the stakeholders and think about what are the needs and what could we do to take this to the next level.”
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.
This story was updated at 8:26 p.m. Oct. 13 with additional information and quotes from Superintendent John Magas. It was originally posted at 7:16 p.m. Oct. 13.