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BELMONT -- A day that Belmont Mayor Stan Sobel said he knew would come when he was elected mayor in 2015 is now approaching. The fate of the 102-year old Belmont School building will likely be decided by Belmont Village Council at its Thursday, July 6 meeting. A third and final public meeting, organized by the Belmont Elementary Forward Committee to discuss options with the public, was held on Monday, June 26.
"We are at a junction," said councilman Grant Williams at the second meting on Tuesday, June 20. "We have two options- either renovate or demolish."
On June 20., Sobel presented a list of items, totaling over $1 million that would be required to be fixed in order to save the building from demolition. Those items include: replacing all 60 windows with thermopane windows and caulking around each one; repairing the exterior brick around the entire perimeter roofline of the building including the inner portion (adjacent to the actual rubberized roofing); refurbishment of the second floor and part of the first floor where most of the current damage is located; removal of old plaster, removal of structures that are not up to code, re-plastering of the interior walls on the second floor, and rebuilding structures inside the building that are now dilapidated; changing the roof to a pitched roof; updating the drainage and gutter system on top of the roof; updating all plumbing to code; an engineer's report on all items that are in current code violation; rewiring of the building to meet code; removal of the central heating system and its replacement with an alternate heating system that will allow for better control room to room and floor to floor; water sealing of the exterior brick and repair of the wood casing around each window, repair of the external cracks in the brick where water is penetrating behind the brick, and replacement of all brick that has been broken apart from deterioration due to neglect and weathering conditions; retrofitting the building so that it is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, including the installation of elevators to each floor; the possible installation of a sprinkler system for each room to meet modern fire codes which would requiring re-plumbing of all water lines through the building; stabilization and repair of structural cracks located on the second floor where that extends to the exterior of the building and is now pushing outward away from the building toward the playground; removal of all the flooring on the second floor and installation of new flooring; removal of all mold and mildew that is behind some structures in the rooms on the second floor.
Sobel noted that of the above list, the brick work, windows, roof, and ADA compliance represented the major expenses. Sobel said that when he became mayor the cost to heat the building for one room used as the water department office was $2,400 per month with the thermostat set at 70 degrees. When he turned it down to 40 degrees the cost dropped to $750 per month.
"So the community is paying thousands of dollars a year to keep a 102-year old building on life support for one room," Williams stated.
Sobel said that parts of the building were waterlogged from a leaking roof, and although the leak was repaired, once it dried out the plaster cracked and fell out onto the floor. Those cracks also extend to the outside from the water damage and the freezing and thawing of winter and spring. "As time goes on, if we didn't fix that, we would have an even worse mess up there than we have now," he said.
Williams said that upon being elected to council, he was given a tour of the building and witnessed water running down the walls as he turned on a light in a room. "It is hazardous and someone is going to get hurt. It's just an accident waiting to happen."
Williams said the bricks on the third floor are not stable and could fall out. "As a parent, as a son, and as a husband I'm very concerned. And as a community member I'm very concerned somebody may get hurt. It terrifies me, actually," he said.
Sobel said he spoke at the Belmont High School Alumni Banquet a few weeks ago and presented them with the same information. He gave aproximately half of the 125 attending the banquet a tour of the building and said that all who toured it agreed it was in too poor of a condition to be renovated. "They were all amazed to see what has happened to the building and at that time they understood exactly what I was talking about," Sobel said. "I've said this before, the memories you have of that building, back whenever you went there - it's not the same building." Sobel added that it was the people, the classmates and teachers, not the building that formed those happy memories for people. "The alumni don't come to celebrate a building. They come to celebrate each other being there."
He continued, "There's been a lot of destruction in that building. I'm not going to point fingers. Pointing fingers isn't going to get us anywhere. What we need to do is move forward and do something to fix the situation and that's where we are now. It's an unsafe place."
He said his big concern is that brick and other pieces of the building will fall off and hit a child playing on the playground.
"I'm not going to sit here and not do something about this building and have an accident out there where a kid playing on the playground gets hurt because we didn't do the responsible thing," Sobel said.
Williams asked those attending, "Are we at a juncture, as a community, to begin looking at demolishing the building?" He said an informal vote at the first community meeting showed the majority were in favor of that option because of the expense and length of time required to renovate it.
While making a decision and formulating a plan and timeline to move forward was seen as the priority, options for preserving some of the bricks for a future monument to the building if the decision to raze it were made, were also discussed. Water board President Ken Davis said there were many items that could be salvaged from the building. Arranging an auction of building items, the hauling and disposal of debris, and securing a new location for the water department building are other considerations.
"There are a lot of aspects of this, more than just demolishing the building," Sobel said.
"We're not like a metropolitan area where we have a tremendous amount of businesses here in this town that would contribute to this. We have people. We have individual families, many of which are on fixed incomes and their ability to help is limited," Sobel said. "They do not have large sums of money and for them to be responsible for and tied to over $1 million to fix this building over here - that's unacceptable to me and to council."
Sobel noted that comparisons to the Bethesda School building were inaccurate because at the time of its demolition earlier this spring the village of Bethesda did not own the building. The building, which was owned by Belmont County, was sold in an auction several years ago to the late Bob Shepherd who later sold it to Joe Braido. Sobel said Braido had estimated that the cost to renovate the Bethesda school building, which was in much better condition than the Belmont building, would have been $1.2 million.
"We own both these buildings (including the gym where the meeting was being held). It's our responsibility," Sobel said. "He (Braido) found that it was more cost effective to knock it down. So there's two school buildings we're talking about that are totally different circumstances."
Those attending the meeting agreed that a decision needed to be made by council at its next meeting rather than continuing to discuss it.
"We can discuss it until the building actually falls down," said councilman Shawn Bruce. He added that with the village's recent application for a new playground, he would prefer to see the building torn down prior to a new playground being built.