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Don't shortchange Langston

Johnson City Press • Jun 17, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Under most circumstances, we would applaud Johnson City leaders for sending an architect back to the drawing board to look for possible savings on a building project.

When it comes to the Langston High School renovation effort, though, we hate to see the process take any longer than it has.

After all, it’s already 53 years overdue.

When the courts finally forced Johnson City to integrate in 1965 — 11 years after the U.S Supreme Court said they should have in Brown vs. the Board of Education — the city closed the former black high school and eventually used it as a school maintenance facility.

Over time, the building was severely neglected, so much so that by the time the school maintenance department left it in 2016 for a new location in north Johnson City, much of it was unsalvageable.

As Langston alumni lobbied to see their old school take its rightful place in the city’s history by converting it to community use, they were disappointed to learn that only the gymnasium addition could be saved. The classroom portions were razed last year, leaving only the brick arch that marked the original entrance. What a shame.

City officials have committed to spending $1.8 million to remake the old gym into a multicultural arts center in partnership with an alumni advocacy group, the Langston Education and Arts Development Corporation. LEAD has agreed to raise $500,000 to supplement the city’s investment.

But as Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Tuesday’s edition, the low bid for the renovation came in at $2.1 million, $300,000 more than the city wanted to spend, and City Manager Pete Peterson said LEAD had not yet met its fundraising goal, which had a June 1 target date. Peterson said the city staff and the Langston group agreed to wait a few weeks, allowing the architect to look for “value engineering” in hopes of lowering costs while LEAD members try to nail down more donations.

While it’s great that Langston alumni are raising funds to support their hopes, the project should not hang on their efforts.

Hindsight is easy from a modern eye in the 21st Century, of course, but the city should should have repurposed and preserved Langston for community use when it closed.

The former students did not neglect the building. The city did. The alumni had to watch as the city’s black history eroded.

To their credit, the Langston alumni have taken the high road on that history and have not been tossing out blame. They just want the city to finally step up.

While a blank check is not in order, we hope “value engineering” won’t mean cutting back on the project’s scope or quality. That already happened once when the initial design exceeded the budget last year. Johnson City owes it to not just Langston alumni but all city residents to make sure Langston’s legacy and culture are properly preserved.

Even five decades late, it’s the right thing to do.

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