by: Dan Barton, Publisher of THE NEW-HARMONY GAZETTE.

March 1, 2018

Back when the New Harmony School closed, the Town Council President at that time, David Campbell, said in a local newspaper interview, that it had been assessed for $7 million dollars. Now, just seven years later, The New Harmony Town Council is considering the option of tearing down the school and turning the property into a cornfield. According to the current Town Council President, Alvin Blaylock, the land could be rented for about $1860 per year, maybe a little more, he said. I calculate that, without imputed interest, it would take around 4,000 years to break even on that $7 million dollar assessment quoted by Campbell.

I’m not trying to put a guilt trip on Alvin Blaylock or the present members of the New Harmony Town Council. It’s not easy to solve what many see as the intractable dilemma of an unwanted 55,000 square foot public building and 30 acres of land. The Council seems to be looking for a solution and considering more than one option. If the problem is not managed properly and in a practical manner it could end up being a money pit. Small towns like New Harmony cannot afford a problem like that.

Recently at the February 20, 2018, Town Council public meeting, all five members of the Town Council voted unanimously to seek bids for the demolition of the building, the removal of the concrete pad that it sits on, and the blacktop parking areas.

For the past three years, The Working Men’s Institute here in New Harmony was trying to develop a plan to use the building and grounds for an alternative type of educational training and town social center. They eventually decided to give up and abandon the project. I would like to say that the WMI turned the facility back to the Town of New Harmony, but that would be inaccurate. The Town never ceased owning the facility for those three years. The Working Men’s Institute never took title to the property.

What could the two Town Councils that administered our town during that three year period have done to save this property from the wrecking ball and turn it into a profitable venture for New Harmony? Maybe one thing they could have done since they never ceased owning it, was to have advertised it for sale Nationwide. According to Council President Blaylock, the previous Council sent out only 191 Requests for Proposals (RFPs) back in 2014. That’s not many in today’s world. This little newspaper, The New-Harmony Gazette, sometimes reaches up to 500 people in a month.

The thing is, we don’t even know if these RFP’s were all sent out or not. According to Blaylock, there is no record of where they were sent or to whom. Councilman Blaylock said to me several days after the February Council meeting that he has been unable to locate that list of Request For Proposal’s that were sent out in 2014. So, there doesn’t appear to be a record that any of them were ever sent out, other than the one that was responded to, which was from The Working Men’s Institute. Could it be that someone may have forgotten to mail them?

Councilman Blaylock also said that one of the several options at which the council has been looking is exactly what it would cost to do the demolition. He indicated at the February meeting

that he had heard the cost would be anywhere from $300,000 dollars to $400,000 dollars, from a 2014 Town Council estimate, but that nobody can really prove it. “There’s no detail,” he said, “ that I can find anywhere about what it entailed.” More missing records? We may never know! Mr. Blaylock said to me that if there were demolition estimate records that they would be very detailed and would indicate each phase of the demolition and its costs. They would not simply state $300, $350 or $400 thousand dollars as a total cost. But the records have not been found. He says that he has a form that he would like to use to seek a bid for the demolition of the school and its paved property. Blaylock says that his bid package would include the costs to take down the building and then stop. Then what it would cost to take up the concrete pad that the school sits on, and stop again. Those would be phases number one and two.

Later Council President Blaylock said during the Council meeting that there would be phase number three – where they would remove the parking blacktop on the southeast parking area and then phase number four – where they would give cost estimates on removing the parking blacktop on the northwest parking area. He finished by saying, “This does not mean that we will be demolishing the building, but it will give us an exact amount of what it is going to cost and what it entails.”

Blaylock said that there were other options that he had considered and that he pointed out. He said that he had recently talked with a contractor who was doing a conversion of an abandoned Catholic Grade School on St. Joseph Avenue in Evansville, into an apartment complex. Mr. Blaylock wanted to see if the contractor might be interested in doing a similar project at the New Harmony School. The contractor looked at the Harmony School, Blaylock said, and that he declined because he thought the building was too large and the market to weak in New Harmony to bring people in to rent the apartments.

The third idea proposed by Council President Blaylock was that they may seek someone to sell the property. No one asked, but at this juncture, I would like to weigh in on that item. It would seem to me to be a good idea put it on the national market and let the advertisements run for a year. If the Town Council rushes in now and destroys the property, it will be destroying an extremely valuable town asset that cannot ever be replaced.

By repairing the HVAC and running it for one year at the school, there is a fair opportunity for a company somewhere in this vast nation to utilize this building and the parking for its business. That would generate income for our town and possibly put the property on the County tax rolls. We need to give this a fair chance. It should have been ongoing for the past seven years but was an idea that was neglected. There was nothing stopping the last three Town Councils from pursuing the idea of selling the school. They owned the property! If there was an impediment, I’d like to hear what it was. I’m sure you would too. By not initiating a concerted attempt to sell the school and its property our town may have experienced an unnecessary loss of income.

Mr. Blaylock said in the last public meeting that, “I would like to take the Soccer Field, the Softball Field and the area north and east of the Softball Field and turn it into agricultural farmland. Not spend money mowing. It costs about $28 per hour to mow grass. We can turn it into agricultural farm ground. We would not be getting rich but we could be receiving a little bit of income.” “By turning it into agricultural farmland,” he said, “if we needed the property back for development or whatever, we could take it from agriculture right back to development.”

Councilman Blaylock pointed out that the Baseball Field will stay for now. He said, “You’d need a contractor with a cherry picker to get that done. If that were ever decided you’d need future further discussions.” Finally, he said, “The Baseball Field will stay. The Softball field is being removed.”

A vote to obtain a cost estimate from an unidentified company interviewed by Council President Blaylock to give the Council estimates for the cost of, “getting the building taken down” was passed by all five members unanimously. There were no objections to this approach during the discussion period.

Council President Blaylock’s idea to turn the Soccer Field, Softball Field and land northeast and south of it, into farmland; what he described as, “about 15 to 15 and a half acres,” was unanimously approved by all five members of the Council with no objections during the discussion period.

Final note: On Tuesday, February 20th, after the adjournment of the Town Council meeting, I was contacted by a citizen and reader of the New Harmony Gazette who said to me, “They demolished the softball fencing and dugouts before the meeting today. Don’t they have to vote on things like that?” I went over to the Softball field myself and can confirm that as of the 20th the field was down. There were separate piles for the busted concrete blocks, the fencing that had been removed and the posts. As far as the question about the vote, I don’t have an answer for that yet. But anyone who is interested could send that question to our Town Attorney Erin Bauer. I’m sure she would know! I spoke to Alvin Blaylock about the demolition and he said that it was a cleanup project on the school grounds.

FOOTNOTE:  Posted b the City-County Observer without bias, opinion or editing.