The Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County called a facilities meeting earlier this week to discuss several vacant properties owned by the school system.
John Vallas, a real estate and commercial developer, was brought in to update the board members on recent purchase offers on various properties.
The properties included the Old Shell Road School, the Russell Building on Broad Street, the Augusta Evans School property on Florida Street and the “Creighton Property,” which a vacant lot on Springhill Avenue.
Augusta Evans relocated its staff and students to a new facility on Biloxi Avenue this summer, but seventh and eighth graders in the system’s Star Academy and Alternative School programs have already begun using the old facility.
“There’s an interested party that’s been working for about three years to acquire a piece of property from Mobile Infirmary to develop a retail shopping center, but there’s some restrictions on that site that prevent them going forward at this time,” Vallas said. “They were looking for another site in midtown, and expressed interest in Augusta Evans when it was closed. That’s something that could be available.”
According to Vallas, an offer was made on the property for its appraised value, with a minimum cost of $1.5 million. Vallas said the board could always counter the offer, though he advised them to do otherwise.
Tommy Sheffield, executive director of operations for MCPSS, said the facilities department has already ordered an appraisal on the building and is expecting the results back in 10 to 15 days.
As for the students, Vallas said the sale and bid process would take well into this school year and possibly through next summer, which would give Star Academy students time to be relocated.
“We would want to work as much time into the contact as we could to stay through the school year because we wouldn’t want to disrupt those available facilities,” Superintendent Martha Peek said. “It’s better to move forward rather than continue to lose value on the property.”
Peek also told members of the board that Mobile City Council members Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie were “very much in favor of the Augusta Evans proposal.”
Vallas said tax credit apartment developers have also approached the system about purchasing both the Old Shell and Broad Street properties at their appraised values but for “no less than $800,000.”
The Old Shell School, which was a magnet school until 2012, was appraised in June of 2014 and was valued at $571,000 with a building value of $0, according to Sheffield.
“The building has continued to deteriorate and depreciate over time,” Sheffield said. “It’s lost value because of asbestos, roof issues and a series moisture penetration issues.”
The Russell Building hasn’t been used as a school for more than two decades. After students left, it was used for professional development and teacher training, but has been vacant for several years now.
Vallas said it was recently appraised at $204,000 and combined with the Old Shell School, both properties are valued at around $775,000 — $25,000 less than what the system was offered for both parcels of land.
Peek said it would also be beneficial to take some action to address the Russell Building due to its current condition.
“The Downtown Alliance has spoken with me and (is) concerned that the building is very fragile,” she said. “If a fire broke out, it would impact the downtown area. Neighbors have also expressed concern about vagrants going into the building.”
Peek said the school staff takes measures to prevent “vagrants” such as boarding up entrances, but admitted the system still deals with trespassing and vandalism at some of its closed facilities.
Finally, the board discussed several possible options for the “Creighton Property,” which Sheffield said was at one point strongly considered to be the location for a midtown fire station.
“Former Mayor (Sam Jones) and the past administration approached us because they were trying to close the Western Drive Fire Station on Moffett (Road) and wanted to bring it to the Springhill side to have interstate access,” Sheffield said. “The new administration said the city doesn’t have the funds right now, but if we could get a private developer to buy the property, build the station and then lease it back to the city, we could possible have a fire station there.”
Vallas said since those discussions, two or three offers have been made without regard to the building’s appraised value. He said those include Dollar Stores, automotive sales and repair stores and tax credit apartment developers.
He did discuss one $450,000 offer for the 4½-acre property, and said the system was in the process of getting an updated appraisal on the property since it’s been cleared.
Because it was a facilities meeting, board members took no action on the offers.
Board President Reginald Crenshaw said they would wait for the results of the appraisal and take these matters up at the board’s next work session.