ERWIN — According to those who work there, the Unicoi County Schools Central Office building on North Elm Avenue has been showing its age for some time now.
Director of Schools Denise Brown said the building has experienced major leaks over the years, with the worst coming this summer. Some walls are cracked and are pulling away from the building’s stairwells. Some portions of the building’s ceilings are missing chunks of plaster. Its floors creak with nearly each step. The south end of the structure starting is to lean away from the rest of the building.
The furnace — formerly a coal furnace that was converted to a gas years ago — is difficult to find parts for when in need of repair, Brown said. The building, she said, is virtually impossible to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
But an upgrade may soon be on the way.
Earlier this month, the Unicoi County Board of Education approved a measure for Brown to enter into a contract with Studsvik, Inc. to purchase a building the company owns at 101 Nolichucky Ave. for $750,000.
Brown said the contract has been sent to Studsvik, Inc., and officials in the school system are hoping to hear a response within the next week.
Once Studsvik signs the contract, Brown said the company will have 60 days to move out of the Nolichucky Avenue building.
The building that serves as central office was constructed in 1922, and served as the Elm Street School until 1969. In 1970, the town of Erwin, which still owns the building, leased the old school to the Board of Education to serve as the schools’ central office.
Brown said school officials have pursued several options for a new central office over the past few years and the purchase of the Studsvik building was the best of these. In 2004, the Board of Education sought a quitclaim deed from the town to take ownership of the Elm Avenue building. However, Brown said the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not wish to issue the quitclaim deed at that time. It was also learned renovation of the building would cost about $1.5 million, if not substantially more.
“The architect tells us that even if you renovated this at $1.5 million, that once you gutted it and got into the renovations that you could run into major structural problems and could increase the cost as well,” Brown said.
The school board also explored the possibility of constructing a new central office building, but Brown said the construction of a new 15,000-square-foot building would cost approximately $2 million plus the cost of the land to build on.
The need for a new building was not only recommended in a 2005 school system master facilities plan, it was also included in the board’s five-year plan.
“The board has had this in their plans for quite some time,” Brown said.
The first priority for school officials, Brown said, was to address student space needs throughout the school system. With that now complete, Brown said officials could focus on finding a new location for the central office.
The Studsvik building presents a number of upgrades over the current building, Brown said. Although smaller in terms of square footage, the building will offer more traditional office space rather than converted classrooms. It will also offer new plumbing, electrical and HVAC.
Brown also compared the utility costs of the current building to the Studsvik building. During a 20-month period, the utility costs at the Studsvik building would be nearly half of what they are at the current facility. Brown estimates that between these utility savings and the upkeep on the current building, the new building will pay for itself in 15 years.
The purchase of the building would be paid for out of the system’s fund balance, which has been built up over the years through Forest Service money, Impact Aid funds and Tennessee Valley Authority monies in lieu of taxes. This funding can be used for capitol outlay projects such as the purchase of a new building, Brown said.
“The positive thing about that is we’re not asking the county or the taxpayers for any increase,” Brown said. “Those are funds that we’ve been able, over a nine-year period of time, to reserve to do things.”