School system interested in saving armory

The old National Guard armory on Dabney Drive is not an ideal building for use by the school system, but the dual purpose of saving the structure and meeting a need for schoolchildren is enticing, Superintendent Norm Shearin said in an interview last week.

Speaking the morning after he held a preliminary meeting with City Manager Eric Williams and County Manager Jerry Ayscue about the fate of the building, Shearin said he’s eager to play a part in saving the facility for public use.

“If we can be a part of that, it would be fine,” he said. “We just tried to start the ball rolling.”

Henderson and Vance County share ownership of the armory, which the National Guard abandoned several years ago and which has been closed to public use since the fall because of safety concerns.

A committee of two county commissioners and two City Council members is weighing what to do with the Depression-era building. If the school system decides to pursue a role in the armory’s future, Shearin said, two school board members will join that committee.

The armory sits across Oak Street from E.M. Rollins Elementary School, which lacks a multipurpose room or any other form of a gym. A multipurpose room for the school is part of the $28.1 million facilities plan that the Board of Education approved and sent to the Board of Commissioners in late December.

The armory isn’t ideal for that purpose. For one thing, children would have to cross the street to get to the facility. For another, the renovations would be expensive.

“We can’t take on any other facility debts,” Shearin said, so the city and county would have to seek grants to underwrite the necessary renovations.

Frazco appraised the armory site last year at $1.2 million, but the building needs about $1 million in renovations and repairs.

The price of building a multipurpose room at Rollins would be less than $600,000, a significant savings from the price of overhauling the armory. But the math changes if the costs are split three ways among the city, county and school system.

In addition, Shearin recognizes that the armory has value to the community beyond dollars and cents.

“They were a big deal in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” he said of the armory buildings that were common in small towns in North Carolina. “There’s not a whole lot of them left.”

Shearin has firsthand experience in the importance of North Carolina’s old armories and their usefulness. He said the Roanoke Rapids school district used that town’s armory as a gym, and he played in the final high school basketball game at that armory.

More recently, the Roanoke Rapids building has provided space for classrooms and physical education, he said. That sort of community use could be a model for Henderson.

Shearin said of the Dabney Drive armory, “It’s been a part of this community for a long time.”