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Cost to restore Historic Old Central High School grows

Officials estimate it will cost $25 million to maintain the Historic Old Central High School. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The estimated price tag to maintain the landmark Historic Old Central High School has grown to nearly $25 million.

The Duluth School Board will vote on its annual 10-year capital improvement plan next week that includes repair and restoration costs to the 126-year-old building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The plan also projects a $10 million deficit at the end, based on current levy numbers.

A change in projects and levy funding could alter that, said district facilities manager Dave Spooner, but the estimated eventual debt reflects the level of work that needs to be done to maintain the dozen-plus district properties.

One of those changes could be selling Historic Old Central. The building has in recent decades housed district administration and the Area Learning Center, and received little attention during the $315 million district construction and consolidation plan completed in 2013. School Board members have floated the idea of selling from time to time, but the building has not been put up for sale.

"It's a conversation I am definitely open to," member Josh Gorham said Monday.

Member Alanna Oswald said she wonders whether the district should be in the business of restoring the landmark.

"I think it's really sad we are not able to take care of that building and honor its legacy like we should," she said. "I think it needs to be a priority if we are going to remain there, but we don't have the resources to do everything we need to do."

The projected cost to repair and restore Historic Old Central makes up more than half of the $44 million in maintenance work planned for the next decade. Professionals will soon audit the building to determine a more accurate cost, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. It hasn't been done in more than a decade.

"Part of having an assessment done is so we have a firm understanding of how much work the building needs ... and make some decisions before we start any major projects," Gronseth said.

Any buyer would need the skills to work with a historic building and "respect and maintain it as a historical site," he said.

The most expensive work is slated to begin during the 2024 budget year, and includes replacement of one section of the original slate tile roof for $3 million. (The entire roofing project is expected to cost more than $8 million.)

'Elephant in the room'

In 1892 when Historic Old Central was built, the lumber and shipping industries had made Duluth a thriving, wealthy city. The Richardsonian Romanesque-style school was considered one of the greatest examples of that style of architecture in the United States. Designed by Emmet S. Palmer and Lucien P. Hall, it was modeled after the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Its place on the National Register means a strict adherence to preservation guidelines when doing work. That plan includes preservation of exterior facades, along with entrance stairways, walks and approaches and the grounds in all directions but north. It would take fire or an act of God for permission to demolish the building, and only then if half or more of the structure is already destroyed. Doing nothing is also allowed, which is why selling would be a careful consideration.

Other major expenses include window replacement for $1.8 million and restoration of the iconic clock tower and chimneys for $1.4 million.

Spooner is concerned about the cost to heat the building when it converts from steam to hot water over the next few years. That, along with ventilation and the school's exterior — including masonry, windows and the roof — are the most pressing needs, he said.

Board chairman David Kirby said the city and district need to decide together what to do with the historic building.

"It's always kind of the elephant in the room," he said, but the problems that need to be addressed more imminently won't be ignored before that decision is made.

The board votes on a new maintenance plan each year.

'Tough choices'

The district's financial woes — having almost no reserve cash — have affected maintenance plans.

Maintenance money, to the tune of $1 million each year, is being spent this year and the next two to pay the salaries of some of the employees who work on such projects. That means some projects have been pushed down the line. The unbudgeted $1 million playground mulch replacement project done last year also deferred maintenance.

The district typically doesn't spend as much as the Minnesota Department of Education recommends for capital improvements: $2 to $3 per square foot a year. In Duluth, that means between $3.8 million and $5.7 million per year, Spooner said.

The repair work being done this year costs about $1.8 million. The next maintenance cycle, to be voted on by the board via property tax levy in December, is expected to cost $3.2 million.

Oswald doesn't see the decade of planned work and associated costs as an indicator of more looming debt. (And maintenance funding by law is separate from classroom expenses.)

"It shows we have more needs than resources," she said. "We may need to make some tough choices."

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