By Keith Kappes - Publisher
Aug. 14, 2013 — At last.
What appears to be the last major piece of the puzzle for funding renovation of the former Olive Hill High School fell into place last week with the approval of a $325,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, made the announcement Friday during the Community Partners’ Summit sponsored by the Grayson Area Chamber of Commerce.
The money will be used to realize a dream envisioned more than 15 years ago by the Olive Hill Historical Society, Inc.
It is estimated to be enough money to cover the higher-than-expected renovation costs that have delayed the project for nearly two years.
“The architect simply underestimated the cost of adapting a 90-year-old building to the building and safety codes of this time,” said Linda Lowe, president of the historical society. “We tried to bid it three times with $530,000 from two earlier grants but it simply wasn’t enough money to do the job right.”
When finished, the old school building will serve the community under its new name, the Olive Hill Arts and Education Center.
It has survived several challenges, the latest being public suggestions that the $500,000 grant approved for the project in 2011 be used instead for repairs to the city’s water system or to relocate the fire station out of the flood plain of Tygart’s Creek.
That distraction ended quickly when state officials pointed out that the money could not be shifted to another project and that the city would have to repay about $40,000 already used for engineering and architectural costs.
In addition, none of the original CDBG funds could be released for renovation until the historical society had all of the required funding.
In other words, a downsized project less than originally proposed would not have been acceptable to those holding the grant funds.
Sadly, trying to preserve and enhance old OHHS has produced local critics, some anonymous on social media, who questioned the project’s value and even the intentions of the volunteers who make up the historical society’s leadership.
With ARC’s approval of this new grant, the renovation project has been embraced by no less than 10 funding sources, often in competition with projects from other communities.
“We felt in our hearts that this was the right thing to do and that it would create a wonderful community asset at much less expense than a new building,” said Debbie Baker Harman, the historical society’s vice president. “We are preserving a historic structure which holds so many memories for our community."
Counting the ARC grant, the project has received about $1.3 million in local, state and federal grant support and private gifts.
Based on a conservative estimate of $190 per square foot for new construction, the cost of replicating the 24,000 square feet of floor space in the old high school today would be at least $4.5 million.
Once the project is completed, Ashland Community and Technical College (ACTC) has agreed to offer classes “on the hill” in refurbished classrooms.
Also, the Olive Hill branch of the Carter County Public Library will be relocating to the building’s third floor to space previously used by the high school library.
An elevator will be installed to provide full access to the building for physically-challenged visitors.
The top two floors of the building will be renovated but the bottom floor will be left for storage. Replacement of original windows with energy-efficient windows also will remain to be done.
A fact rarely mentioned is that the historical society gave up $75,000 from one of its grants to allow the city to use that money for matching funds for the construction of the senior citizens/community center.
“We’re confident that the people of Olive Hill eventually will realize that preserving and adapting the old school building was worth the wait and enduring the problems we’ve faced and overcome,” said Lowe.
(Next week: What lies ahead?)