The town of Woodstock is considering an unsolicited proposal made by Echelon Resources Inc. to acquire the old Woodstock school for the purpose of renovating the structure for use as an apartment building.
Echelon Resources, which specializes in renovating and repurposing historic buildings, made the proposal to acquire the building, located at 403 W. Court St., in October 2019. Woodstock Mayor Jeremy McCleary said at a public hearing on Thursday, during which the proposal was presented, that town administrators and Town Council members have had regular dialogue with Edwin Gaskin, who represented Echelon Resources during Thursday’s virtual meeting, since that time and have done “a lot of due diligence” and “significant negotiation” in regard to the proposal.
Town Council will consider the disposition of the property and the purchase agreement – for $1, the same price the town paid for the property in 2014 with the intent of eventually using it as its town office – at its June 2 meeting.
As part of the proposal, the town would retain a large portion of the 2-acre parcel on which the building is located, with Echelon Resources receiving 0.7 acres of that parcel, a space that would include the old school building and land immediately surrounding it.
McCleary said on Friday that town officials have taken the proposal “very seriously” given the historical significance of the building and called the proposal a compelling one made by a firm with a strong track record on similar projects. Echelon Resources lists 15 previous projects on its website, including five done on former school buildings.
McCleary noted that as part of a “deep dive” into the work done by Echelon Resources, town officials sent the firm a lengthy questionnaire and contacted other localities that have dealt with the company. Town officials received nothing but “very positive feedback” from those localities, McCleary added.
“Our community has a very strong emotional attachment to that building. It’s an iconic building,” McCleary said of the old school. “It’s important to our community, and many people have a long history with that building and people are going to want to see that this building’s in good hands and that it’s going to be preserved. And after about seven months of research on the part of the town, including site visits and a deep dive into the company and how they’ve done on other projects, I believe that the building would be in good hands with Echelon and that the building will be properly preserved and maintained. I think it would be great.”
During his presentation on Thursday, Gaskin said walkthroughs of the building suggested approximately nine market-rate apartment units could be implemented into the structure.
Gaskin added that Echelon Resources would apply for historic tax credits on the project, something the firm has done – and been granted – on each of its previous projects. Under HTC guidelines, Echelon Resources would be required to maintain the historical properties of the building, an important aspect of the proposal, McCleary said.
In response to McCleary’s question regarding the outside aesthetic of the building under the proposal, Gaskin said the exterior would look largely as it is now, “just a lot prettier.” Gaskin spoke similarly of the interior, noting that the layout would mostly remain as is while Echelon Resources and its team inserted “creatively designed” kitchens, bathrooms and closets into the existing spaces.
As part of his presentation, Gaskin displayed before-and-after photographs of three past Echelon projects, including one done on a former school building in Halifax. Photos of the Halifax Lofts showed the school’s old chalkboards incorporated into the apartment designs.
“It will be very recognizable as a historic school once it’s finished,” Gaskin said of the building during his presentation, “but it also needs to be a living space for the residents, so there’s a middle ground there.”
Echelon would maintain ownership of the property upon completion of the project.
The old Woodstock school was built in 1908 and was last used as a school in 1959, at which point it housed the Shenandoah County School Board until 2001. It’s been in deteriorating condition since that time, Clem noted during Thursday’s public hearing.
In 2011, the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging proposed turning the school building into its offices and constructing senior housing on the adjacent lot, a plan that never came to fruition. The town purchased the property three years later.
McCleary said the current Town Council was in place when Woodstock purchased the property from the county, adding that town officials wanted to see the property renovated and put to good use. At the time, he added, the town didn’t see a private-sector solution to the renovation, restoration and maintenance of the building.
The town put the renovation of the building in its capital improvement program in 2015, with construction slated for fiscal year 2021-22, according to the town’s website. During her presentation on Thursday, Clem noted that inflation numbers raised the estimated cost of improving the structure for use as a town office to between $3.7 and $4.5 million.
McCleary said that had the town not received Echelon’s proposal, Woodstock would have proceeded with the plan of turning the old school into a town hall.
“I do think it was becoming somewhat cost prohibitive,” McCleary said, “but I think people felt so strongly about having a purpose for the building, there had been certainly no talk about doing anything other than a town office, and then we received this unsolicited proposal.”
McCleary and Gaskin both encouraged community feedback on the proposal during Thursday’s public hearing.
“Our projects consistently have been made better by input and feedback from the community,” Gaskin said.