Congressman makes no promises on school site

Mayor Clem Seifert delivered on a promise Thursday morning: He asked, begged and pleaded for Congressman G.K. Butterfield to give Henderson $10,000 toward the demolition of the old South Henderson School.

The city will have to wait for the answer.

The school on Old Epsom Road has been abandoned and falling apart for decades and is now the property of at least its second private owner, Stewart Clark. But the price of demolishing the asbestos-ridden structure — estimated at $80,000 — has prevented any progress on the prime 2-acre site.

The Clean Up Henderson Committee and Code Compliance Director Corey Williams found a way to break the stalemate.

They got an alumnus of the school, Enfield resident Allen Stallings, to agree to tear down the building at no charge as long as he gets the bricks, which can be salvaged. Clark took care of the bulk of the asbestos.

The remaining obstacle is the price of disposing of the debris that will be left after Stallings removes the bricks. The asbestos-contaminated pieces must go to an approved landfill in Granville County, while the rest can go through the Vance County transfer station. The total cost, Williams has said, will be $5,000 to $10,000.

Seifert wants the school torn down now, while the project has momentum, but the city has no money to spare. (It also is teetering on some questionable ground in moving to spend public money on private property, but a deal could be close for Clark to sell the site to the city at a rock-bottom price.) Seifert said the city could develop a community center, a park, a day care center, a police substation or some other community facility there.

He told City Council members Feb. 17 that he would take Butterfield to the school and ask for $10,000 from the federal government to get the job done.

“It is right in the middle of the community,” Seifert said when the Butterfield tour group arrived at the old school on a cold, wet, gray morning that highlighted the decay. Cleanup Chairwoman Lynn Harper drove the white city van, which carried city staffers Gwen Wright and Sandra Wilkerson, four Butterfield staffers, two reporters, the mayor and the congressman.

“If y’all don’t do anything else for us ever, I need to find $10,000 to get that building torn down in the next 30 days,” Seifert told Butterfield. “It will be a major, major accomplishment in this town.”

The mayor promised a photo opportunity of Butterfield atop the bulldozer if the congressman can find the funds.

“I’ll make you a hero to this town,” Seifert said.

Corliss Clemonts-James, Butterfield’s chief of staff, was on a cellphone to senior legislative assistant Alexander Silbey before Seifert finished his pitch.

“How much would the whole project cost?” Clemonts-James asked, referring to the demolition and redevelopment of the site.

Because the future of the property is unknown, Seifert couldn’t offer a figure other than the $10,000 demolition cost.

The mayor expressed frustration that the federal government seems to have money for big construction projects but lacks programs for simpler needs, such as demolition and landfill fees. He said the city isn’t ready to commit to a specific use for the school site, and he doesn’t want to wait months to develop a plan before tearing the building down, even though it has been in ruinous condition for years.

“The federal government spends a gazillion-trillion dollars, and it’s going somewhere,” Seifert said.

When the congressman spotted a blue “Re-elect Butterfield” sign at the intersection of Garnett Street and Andrews Avenue more than three months after the election, Seifert jokingly tried a different tactic to get the money.

“That’s a $10,000 fine,” Seifert said. “You get that building down, and I’ll get that sign down.”

Butterfield was sympathetic to the problems with the school and supportive of eliminating the blight but was noncommittal on finding a source of fast funding for the demolition.

Dollie Burwell, who runs his district office in Weldon, said later that until Henderson has a full redevelopment plan for the site, money will be hard to find.

Seifert and Harper will get to make another pitch to Butterfield for funding during a lobbying trip to Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday.