County examines costs to reopen Bel Alton High School for use
Looks to refurbish the historic landmark, open it to the public
After years of being closed down by the Charles County Government, the Bel Alton High School building, which was turned into a recreation center by the Bel Alton Alumni Association, is finally being opened back up again.
But it will not come without a cost for the county government. Haywood Evans, the director of Community Services, said the cost estimate for the county to reopen the facility to the public is estimated to be at $720,000.
Those costs include new construction being done to the building, replacing the 42 windows in the building, making architectural and engineering changes and replacing the HVAC system, Evans said.
David Eicholtz, the director of Fiscal and Administrative Services for the county, said this project would be paid with bonds. The request was not in the capital budget plan last budget season, he said, so it will have to be added in this year.
“That will be a challenge,” Eicholtz said. “But typically what we do is issue county bonds to fund these type of projects and then pay that borrowing back over a course of 15 to 20 years.”
Costs and upkeep have frequently been a concern with the building. In early 2015, the current board of county commissioners voted unanimously to change the locks on the school-turned-community-center in closed session due to expenses the county had to cover.
The Bel Alton Alumni Association, a nonprofit organization, took over the building’s lease beginning in 1991 — when the county was going to demolish the building — until the point when it was closed.
The association chose to protest against the closing of the school because it was one of the two high schools left from when the county’s school system was still segregated. Despite obtaining the lease on the building, the county was still liable for any payments missed by the association. That led to the county fielding costs the association could not pay.
Evans said the county discovered the things they needed to repair on an initial walkthrough of the building. There are “numerous” soft spots in the floor and a “musty odor” in the building which could indicate mold, he said. After all issues are resolved, he said, there will need to be a second inspection of the building as well.
The county will seek a community development block grant for the building, Evans said, but to meet that requirement 51 percent of the individuals served in the building must meet the requirements of a low-to-moderate income resident.
“If we’re serving 200 people in the building then 101 of those people need to meet that requirement,” he said.
The current grant the county has for the building only requires that the dental equipment in the building is inventoried through March 18, Evans said. But it is inventoried annually, he said, and the county is committed to operating the dental facility in the building as it is “deemed appropriate.”
The money the county will put into the building, Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy (D) said, is to ensure that the county gets the building into a condition that vendors will find suitable. The plan, he said, is to attract vendors to bring “income into that building.”
“Over time, that could offset some of this,” he said. “As of right now, we’re not in a position to be able to do that.”
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) asked what it would take for the county to get into a position where they could begin having tenants in the building.
Bill Shreve, the county’s director of Public Works, said it is difficult to work in a building when things have to be restructured, and there is also a possibility that there is mold in the facility.
The department wants to begin work on the building in the spring, Shreve said, and would ideally have the building open next year.
“If we could get started work in early spring we might be done in early January of next year,” he said.
The county would give the Bel Alton Alumni Association, who tended to the building before the county closed it, an opportunity to move any belongings and material they may have in the building to the two rooms they will occupy. The association would also have the opportunity to use the auditorium, once construction is completed, Evans said, three times per year with no cost. And during normal business hours, he said, the association will have access to two rooms in the facility that the county has selected for them.
“The next steps are identifying possible vendors and proposing how to fund it,” Evans said.