After years of failed attempts to revive the former Phelps Road school in Madison Heights, the current owner’s plan to transform it into apartments received a boost when the loan for the $7 million project closed in mid-December.
Since the school shut down in 1991, the building has been vacant and previous visions for its reuse never panned out. In 2013, an Amherst County appeals board voted to demolish the dilapidated structure. While the facility was spared the wrecking ball, county officials and residents have described it as an eyesore, blight and public safety hazard.
In late 2017, Waukeshaw Development Inc. and its owner, Dave McCormack, entered into an agreement with the county to buy the 41,000-square-foot, 2.82-acre property at 123 Phelps Road for $50,000 and turn it into 41 market rate apartments. After many regulatory and financing hurdles, the site is poised for major strides toward that end goal in 2020.
“There’s so much complexity and layers,” McCormack said of the steps needed in the past few years to get the building ready for renovation. “It can take a long time to do all this work. The good part for us is we’re over that now.”
In recent months, workers have removed asbestos, performed selective demolition and began framing on the interior, McCormack said. Crews also are working on electrical, plumbing, masonry and roofing aspects of the renovation, he said.
“The roof and the structure at some of those areas has deteriorated to the point it was just open air,” McCormack said. “You could walk through the building and look to the sky.”
After the corridors and many rooms have been stripped back, he said he feels the renovation work is manageable.
“We’re over that hump,” McCormack said, adding, “In a historic building, you just don’t want to dismantle everything and start over. We’re trying to pick through selectively and take apart things we feel didn’t belong to the original structure or is too destroyed to save.”
The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, marking a key milestone as the project now can receive historic tax credits. The project also was awarded a $295,000 state brownfields restoration grant in February that aided in the needed cleanup work.
The site’s history as a school dates back to 1924 when the former Madison Heights High School was constructed. Additions were built the following decade, and in 1939 an elementary school was constructed adjacent to the original school. The two schools operated next to each other until the high school’s last graduating class in 1962; it was demolished several years later. A new wing of the elementary school was constructed in its place, and all of the previous additions were connected, forming a single building in 1966.
Jennifer Moore, who represents much of Madison Heights on the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, attended school there when it was known as Seminole Elementary. She has said she is glad to see it slated for a positive reuse bringing needed housing options to the county.
In early 2018, Amherst supervisors rezoned the property to R-3, multi-family, the highest density allowed under current zoning.
Waukeshaw Development, Inc. specializes in restoring historic properties and has more than two-dozen other similar projects in Virginia and North Carolina, including three in Bedford County. In Amherst County, the company is restoring a historic mill on Union Hill Road into a new brewery and restaurant as well as operating the Winton golf course and country club in the Clifford community with plans for future development of historic buildings there.
The company has renovated just more than a handful of other schools and some projects are more complex than others, McCormack said.
“This one is complex because it has so many wings,” McCormack said of the Phelps Road site. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before ... we’ve done projects that have been actually a lot worse.”
Victoria Hanson, executive director of the Amherst Economic Development Authority, said Waukeshaw Development has worked diligently on the complicated process to ready the site for renovation, including a recent transfer of ownership from the EDA to McCormack’s company.
“So much goes on behind the scenes that it can appear that the project is not progressing,” Hanson said.
She said the EDA believes the company’s $7 million investment will help kick off revitalization of the project’s area of Old Town Madison Heights.
“With the proximity to the urban hub of downtown Lynchburg, it’s natural that revitalization and growth would spread across the James River into Madison Heights,” Hanson said. “The Phelps school success will demonstrate to other developers that Madison Heights is a great area to invest in and Amherst County is open for business.”
Claudia Tucker, of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, said she’s pleased with the project’s progress, which is one year ahead of schedule as outlined in the agreement. “It is my hope that this will kick start the economy in Old Town and lead to even more development and businesses.”
The old school had no work done for decades and was broken into and vandalized repeatedly, which made its condition worse, McCormack said. When the renovation is complete, he sees its next chapter as benefiting the neighborhood, attracting tenants and spurring economic activity, tax revenue and jobs for the county.
“We just to have to put it back together,” McCormack said. “That’s the key.”