County sure: No interest in old elementary school

Principal Jason Hightower stood outside Meeker Elementary School on the last day of school May 27. The 71-year-old building has been vacated and a new grade school will open next month.

MEEKER I While the future of the old Meeker Elementary School is unclear, one thing is certain.
Rio Blanco County isn’t interested in the building.
“They have moved on,” said Meeker Mayor Mandi Etheridge, following a meeting July 12 between members of the town board and county commissioners. “They want to go in a different direction.”
The town had requested a work session with the commissioners in order to meet a Friday deadline for putting an issue on the November general election ballot.
“We wanted to make sure we completely explored the option (with the county) before we shut the door on it,” Etheridge said. “They said they had been through the whole process before, and they recognized it didn’t get a lot of community support (using the site of the elementary school to build a new justice center).”
Etheridge said, because the property is owned by the town, a change in ownership would have to be approved by voters. But that won’t be necessary now.
“There won’t be anything on the ballot,” Etheridge said. “For one, we don’t have a specific plan formulated to put it to a vote. The town owns the land, so it’s public land, and if (the ownership) changes hands, it has to go to the voters.
“At some point, if we ever choose to relinquish ownership of that land, the voters will vote on whether they want us to do that,” she said.
Neighborhood residents had opposed the county using the site for a new justice center when it was proposed last October.
Since then, the county has moved in another direction.
“(A plan to use the elementary school site) was not well received,” said County Commission Chairman Ken Parsons. “We’ve reiterated an interest in the parking (space). And we’d be interested in preserving the stone for our new justice center, if they (the town) are interested in tearing down the building.”
Commissioners are considering a scaled-down plan to build a new justice center behind the existing county courthouse.
“In the discussions (with town board members), they just wanted to know if we had any interest (in the old elementary school), but we’ve gone down the road to a much smaller footprint justice center,” Parsons said. “What we had (originally) proposed was a much larger plan than what we are going forward with now. We had envisioned it as more of a community building, with room for the fire department and ambulances and the town police force and all of that in there, as well as some public meeting rooms. What we’re doing now is in essence a jail, two courtrooms and offices for the sheriff’s department. That reduces the footprint significantly. I don’t know how that would affect the (neighborhood) residents and whether that would be more acceptable or not, I don’t know.”
The town had an agreement where it leased the property to the school district, but the site reverted back to the town when the school was vacated at the end of the school year. A new elementary school, east of the Meeker Recreation Center, will be open in August.
As far as any future plans for the old grade-school building, there are none. At least, nothing definite.
“We haven’t 100 percent decided if we’re keeping the building or razing the building,” Mayor Etheridge said. “After 12 months of discussion, we really haven’t sharpened our focus. Nothing has happened that is concrete. This (the county’s proposal) is the only concrete proposal we have for this property. In the last 12 months, there have been lots of ideas and suggestions, but nothing we can actually pursue. So, now that we can say it’s not going to work (with the county), we can focus on how we’re going to move forward.”
Reaching a consensus on the town board will be the first order of business.
“Our first test is to get the town board on the same page,” Etheridge said. “Because, representative of the community, we have seven people on the board and we have seven different ideas (for what to do with the old elementary school).”
One thing for sure, the town doesn’t want the old school to sit vacant indefinitely.
“We don’t have possession of the building anyway. There’s still school stuff in there. So it’s not like it’s ours to do something with immediately,” Etheridge said. “But we don’t want it to sit vacant or useless for very long. Vacant buildings deteriorate quickly.”
Whatever happens with the school site, additional parking will be part of the plan.
“One of the things the county expects is a need for parking,” Etheridge said. “So, whatever kind of configuration we do with that building, additional parking will be included, because we know the county will need it.”
“We know we’ll need additional parking if we put (the justice center) behind the courthouse, or we put it on the elementary school property,” Commissioner Parsons said.
Regarding last week’s meeting with the town, he said, “We tried to make it clear we’re not interested in taking on another asbestos-abatement project. If they’re interested in tearing down the building, we’d be interested in using the site and reusing the stone to make our building look as compatible as possible (with the existing courthouse).”
As far as the county’s timetable for the justice center project, Parsons said, “We should have the conceptual drawings this calendar year. It’s a question of getting a firm cost and then we can talk about financing. The earliest that construction could begin would be two years. That would be 2012.”

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