During a recent public council meeting, Laurel officials found themselves having to defend the town’s appropriation of the former Paul Laurence Dunbar elementary school, slated as the future home for the Laurel Police Department. The conveyance of the Dunbar building to the town of Laurel took place a year and a half ago in in an agreement with the Laurel School District.
During the Monday, Aug. 19, meeting of Mayor and Council, Laurel resident Richard McVey expressed his concern that the town had taken ownership of the building and was now facing significant costs to renovate the building as well as maintaining on-going utility costs.
McVey said it has been estimated by the town’s engineering firm, George, Miles and Buhr (GMB), that the cost to prepare the building for occupancy by the police department is forecasted between $2 million and $2.5 million. Saying he “fully supports the concept of having the police department move into the Dunbar building,” McVey said he is nonetheless concerned with how the town will afford to facilitate the move from a financial perspective.
McVey said finding as much as $2.5 million could be hard for a town the size of Laurel. “That is a lot of money,” he said. “It comes out to about $1,700 per household. I know in conversations I have had with Town Manager (Jamie) Smith, grants are hard to come by. I also know that the federal government has cut back a lot. Has the town developed a contingency plan to address how it will come up with that kind of money?”
Mayor John Shwed said the town took on ownership of the Paul Dunbar School building “knowing there was a reasonable risk.” He went on to say that the town agreed to take the building from the school district mainly because of its significant historic relevance to the community. “We basically took that building because it meant something to half the population of this town,” he said. “There’s a long storied history there. We knew we would have a risk as to how we would pay for the necessary renovations to the building. However, rather than leave the building abandoned and falling apart, and leaving half of our population very unhappy with how we had treated a very prestigious, historic part of African-American culture, we made the decision to take on this project. Yes, we took a risk and I will not walk away from that. I recognize it does cost us a few thousand dollars a month. But, we are trying to turn this into a cash-neutral operation that half our population can be proud of and the other half will be proud as well,” Shwed said.
He said the concept is to rely on finding grants to support the project. “There are no proposals seeking loans or tax increases to support the Dunbar project,” he said.
Town Manager Smith said the town has been in discussions with local state legislators about potential funding sources. She said the town received $160,000 for the Dunbar project from most recent state Bond Bill revenue. Smith said there are also other state funding opportunities that are being discussed.
Late last year the Telamon early childhood education group, which has long operated a 60-child Head Start program on Discount Land Road, in Laurel, entered into an agreement with the town to occupy space in the Dunbar building. In addition to its Laurel operation, Telamon serves children in the Indian River School District from its Georgetown locations and sought the additional space to meet the needs of an additional 54 children.
The agreement with the town of Laurel enabled Telamon to have access to three classrooms to serve 18 children each, as well as necessary office space at Paul Dunbar for its operational expansion. In turn, the organization took on responsibility for any necessary renovations to the building and install new safety-based playground equipment and new security fencing around the grounds.
Smith said in the agreement with the Town of Laurel, Telamon pays no monthly rent for the first five years of a 15-year contract. In lieu of monthly rent, Telamon has budgeted over $250,000 toward building and grounds renovations and repairs. The lion’s share being the cost of fencing and installation of playground equipment. The playground equipment alone, according to a Telamon spokesperson is about $94,000, and will be available for use by the community.
Smith said Telamon also pays a percentage of electric and natural gas heat utilities, a water bill, a portion of taxes on the building and insurance.
McVey said he feels the first five years of Telamon’s use of the building “is not a winning proposition for the town.” He inquired as to whether the town might consider finding “a third party” who could utilize space not relegated for the police department or Telamon to help offset some of the costs.
“Right now the town is absorbing two-thirds of the utility and insurance costs, which comes to a cost to the tax payers of about $70,000 a year,” McVey said. “Meanwhile, the town is heating the entire building and providing hot water and electricity for the entire building, while it sits largely vacant. This is costing the town about $5,000 a month in utilities. Has the town considered making some of the space available to small businesses, or start-up businesses to help offset some of these costs? This could help people and bring more business to Laurel. I would also possibly make more money than we are currently making through Telamon’s utility costs.”
Smith said there had been no discussions with small business; however, Telamon is expressing an interest in consolidating its operations in the county and would like to enhance its presence at the Dunbar building. “This would mean Telamon would take on more space at the Dunbar building and there would be an increase in revenue. This of course, is dependent on Telamon’s ability to acquire necessary grant funding,” she said.
Smith also said that the estimates McVey referred to including building renovation costs and the monthly utility costs might not be completely accurate. She said research she and Police Chief Dan Wright have done into costs of preparing the building for the police department have not revealed it as high as $2 million. “I am not saying it won’t be expensive, I’m just saying that some of the costs in the report are a little high,” Smith said. She also said the $5,000 a month in utility fees is only true for those winter months when natural gas is being used to provide heat for the building. She said when natural gas is not being used the monthly bills usually run between $1,200 and $1,600.
Councilman Jonathon Kellam asked McVey whether research had been done on the costs associated with maintaining the former Laurel Middle School known as the “21 Building” on Central Avenue.” The school district had slated the building to be demolished during construction of the new elementary school complex, but public outcry from residents and former alumni created a campaign to preserve the exterior façade of the building as a memorial to the school. The school district was able to access $750,000 from new school construction to preserve the exterior of the building. There are efforts underway seeking to find a way to also preserve the interior of the building, but thus far that has not happened.
“The 21 Building is costing taxpayers every day,” Kellam said. “The school has to cut the grass and take care of the upkeep of that property. It was estimated to be an over $3 million project. I am just curious why we are not hearing cost analysis about that project.
“We as a town looked at what we would be able to do with the Paul Dunbar school building, while maintaining it as an educational and community-based facility. We did the cost analysis and we are making sure we can do this without raising taxes on anyone here in our community. We are continuing to work on finding ways to pay for this project.”
Kellam said he has personally been in discussion with the USDA regarding potential grant funding to support the Dunbar project, including attending a weeklong seminar next month. “We are willing to do this research to find funding. This is not only because it is a historic school for African-Americans, but also because it means a lot to our entire community. There have been blacks and whites who have attended that school. Throughout my 62 years in this community many of my friends, black and white, went through that school. Yes, I attended that school during segregation but after integration, that school building became Laurel’s building. It belongs to the entire community.”
Kellam cautioned anyone opposed to the town’s involvement in the Dunbar renovation project not to make it an “us and them” issue. “I will not be a part of anything that creates a division in our community,” he said. “I am not accusing you, but I am just saying if anyone wants to think about this from an ‘us and them’ scenario I don’t want to hear it.”
McVey said he did not make his concerns about the costs involved with the Dunbar building an issue of race. “With all due respect, I did not make any statements like that and I resent your implications,” he said. “The only ‘us and them’ I see right now is that the council made a decision to take on the costs of the Dunbar building project behind closed doors. No one in the community knew anything about it until there was a public building transfer ceremony. The few of us who were aware were told that we needed to keep the information on the down low. I just believe that with a cost of $2.5 million it would have behooved the council to let the people who would ultimately have to foot the bill for this know about it. ”
Mayor Shwed disagreed with McVey’s characterization of the Dunbar issue saying it had been addressed in council meetings and he himself had been very vocal with people in the community about the $2.5 million cost estimate.
State legislators say they are working with the town to help find future funding for the Paul Laurence Dunbar building and agree that it is an important project for the community.
State Sen. Bryant Richardson said he is committed to supporting the town in any way he can regarding the Dunbar project, including helping to gain additional funds in next year’s Bond Bill allocations. “Obviously, these are not things you can guarantee, but Tim (Rep. Dukes) and I are actively involved in discussions with Laurel about the Paul Dunbar project and want to help wherever we can,” he said.
Dukes agreed with his colleague and said he has supported the Dunbar project since Laurel Police Chief Dan Wright brought the idea to him almost two years ago. “I wrote the legislation that gifted the Dunbar building to the town,” he said. “I think the Dunbar school has great historic value in the community and it will make a great home for the police department. The current police station is in need of a lot of work and I would really like to see the town move it into that building. I am committed to doing whatever is possible to help find financial support for the project.”