Love Chapel: From school to studio

Brad Hicks • May 20, 2014 at 8:18 AM

ERWIN — Now that it is officially in their hands, Maj. Ron Capes Jr. and his son, Ron Capes III, have big plans for the former Love Chapel Elementary School property.

Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown announced Monday the sale of the approximately 60-year-old school building and around six acres of property surrounding it. The sale to Capes Jr. was finalized Friday.

“The Unicoi County School System is very pleased with the sale of the property,” Brown said. “The sale of the property will reduce the financial burden of keeping the utilities on and the cost of insurance on a property that cannot be used for a school. The Unicoi County School Board is also very excited that Maj. Capes, who has purchased the property, has a vision and plan for the property that can be very positive to Unicoi County.”

Capes, who has served as the senior marine instructor of Asheville (N.C.) High School’s Marine JROTC Program for the past seven years, said Monday that he plans to convert the school into a facility that will lend itself to the production of various types of entertainment.

“My son, Ron Capes III, and I purchased Love Chapel Elementary School and our plans are to turn the facility into a full-scale movie, music and animation production facility,” he said. “We also plan to use local talent to produce full feature films, Internet video series and albums.”

Maj. Capes said his interest in music and film has grown over the past several years, which led to his previous purchase of a movie production truck, studio lights, cameras and cranes. He also said his son has experience in the animation field. Maj. Capes was on site Saturday to begin cleaning out the old school, and said its conversion into a production facility will be a “work in progress.” He said the school’s gymnasium could be converted into a green screen studio, its offices could be used for tasks such as prop construction and prop storage, the classrooms could serve as set spaces and the library could become a motion-capture room for animated features.

“My intent is to get this moving sooner rather than later,” Maj. Capes said.

Classes have not been held at the original Love Chapel location since August 2012, when a large sinkhole was discovered on the school’s grounds. This sinkhole grew to measure around 25 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet deep. After the sinkhole’s discovery, school officials quickly implemented a relocation plan that saw students moved to available space at Unicoi County Middle School and Unicoi County Intermediate School for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year.

In February 2013, the Board of Education voted to permanently close Love Chapel. This vote was around two months after school officials received a report from HSA Engineers & Scientists, which indicated that four areas across the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two other areas were in the process of developing such activity.

Exactly one month to the day it voted to permanently close the school, the board approved a measure to lease 12 modular classroom units for a period of three years and install them on property adjacent to the Unicoi County High School. The nearly complete 2013-14 school year marked the first year of classes for Love Chapel students and staff at this temporary location.

Capes said the now-filled sinkhole on the property is of minimal concern to him at this point.

“I’m not concerned about this one developing any further,” he said. “If it does, I will have it filled in, and I don’t foresee a sinkhole engulfing the entire property.”

Still, Capes said he is cognizant of the risk involved with his purchase. However, he said the challenge the sinkhole has presented to the local school system has created an opportunity, and he expects the operation of a production facility at the old school to be a “great learning experience.”

The school board voted in January to have the now-closed school and the land surrounding it declared as surplus property. The school system was seeking a minimum acceptable bid of $100,000, and a notice of public sale was advertised on the school system’s website and in the local newspaper. However, no bids were placed for the property by a bid submission deadline.

Brown said the money from the sale will be set aside by the school system and will be used for costs related to a new, permanent Love Chapel Elementary School location.

Capes said he has reached out to 17-year-old Unicoi resident Dalton Stout, who with his mother is over local film company Toxic Eagle Studios, for his assistance with some proposed projects. Stout said he is excited about the plans to have this type of production facility establish itself in East Tennessee.

“I’m definitely excited, and I think, hopefully, it will draw a little more tourism and attention to this part of Tennessee,” Stout said.

Capes said once the facility is established, he could foresee it leading to the creation of jobs in Unicoi County. He said he views the facility as a place for those with big dreams but limited resources to come live out their aspirations.

“I look forward to working with the people up there in Erwin, Unicoi and Johnson City to help them do things they didn’t think they were going to be able to do in a much shorter period of time,” he said.

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