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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Pinellas votes serve to preserve historic school buildings

Two of Pinellas County’s oldest schools will get a new lease on life.

School board members voted unanimously Tuesday to sell the North Ward Secondary School in St. Petersburg for $1.9 million, which local preservationists say could save it from being torn down purely “by chance.”

The board also voted to sell South Ward School in Clearwater to the Clearwater Historical Society, which plans to make it a museum with a wing dedicated to artifacts from Pinellas County schools.

Conversations regarding the vacant North Ward school building, which closed in 2008, have created controversy with St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. and the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association. In May, the groups asked the St. Petersburg City Council for a historic designation for the building to ensure it wouldn’t be torn down. School board members were opposed, arguing the historic designation would significantly reduce the sale value because of the regulations attached. The city council sided with the school board.

Fortunately for local advocates and Old Northeast residents such as Robin Reed, the highest bidder for the building, GLI Development LLC, has said it plans to use the building rather than tear it down for new construction. The building sits on less than an acre at 11th Avenue North and Fourth Street.

“Today we are all excited about the plans to sell North Ward to a buyer that plans to reuse the building, ... but we are concerned about the future of our historic schools, particularly in St. Petersburg,” Reed told board members. “We would very much like to reach out to you, the school board and the administration, an invitation to join us to investigate ways that we might be able to work together to preserve the best of our older schools.”

North Ward’s mission-style building was designed by a local architect, with the oldest section built in 1914, and met three of the five criteria set by city council for designation as a local historic landmark, said Monica Kile, executive director of St. Petersburg Preservation. Statutes only require buildings to meet one of the criteria.

“Without the protection that landmark designations afford, it’s been our fear that the building would be demolished,” Kile said. “Preservation makes good economic sense. Historic buildings give communities character and a sense of place, which tourists and residents seek. Some of St. Pete’s coolest places are located in repurposed spaces. This time we got lucky, but it is our hope in the future that we won’t have to rely on luck.”

Superintendent Michael Grego and board members agreed to work with the groups in the future, if it is in the best interest of the community. When Grego was hired by the school district two years ago, the board was paying to maintain 15 unused properties, most of which were more than 50 years old, he said. That number has been reduced to four.

“There is nothing like an old, historic school site, but there comes a time, as this school board has workshopped and labored over many of these buildings, that you need to move on,” Grego said. “We’re trying to provide services not only for education but also in giving back to the community as a whole for each and every site. Maintaining them is costly without any purpose.”

South Ward’s lease with the Clearwater Historical Society is for 50 years and began June 1, with an early termination clause after 15 years. Maintaining a section of the building as a school museum is written in the contract.

“After not being able to keep a few things that we wanted to keep after schools close, I think it’s a great idea to have a Pinellas County schools museum,” board member Robin Wikle said.

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