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Durango School District looks to sell historic building to fire department

Former high school would be remodeled; Big Picture High would be razed and replaced with bays for fire engines
The Durango School District 9-R Board of Education has accepted a letter of intent from the Durango Fire Protection District to sell its historic Administration Building to the fire agency. The two entities will now enter negotiations to see if they can agree to sale terms. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango School District 9-R’s Board of Education unanimously accepted a letter of intent to enter negotiations to sell the district’s historic Administration Building to the Durango Fire Protection District.

The vote came during a special school board meeting held Monday on Zoom.

After the meeting, DFPD Fire Chief Hal Doughty said if the purchase can be finalized, plans are to demolish Big Picture High School, which was built in the 1950s, and replace it with bays and a garage to house fire engines and other vehicles.

The Administration Building, which first housed Durango High School and was built in 1916, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties.

The decision to pursue the DFPD offer came after several members of the public objected, saying another offer from the owners of the Smiley Building that would include development of attainable housing units for 9-R teachers made more sense than to use the area as a fire station.

Under DFPD’s proposal, the Administration Building would be remodeled for office space and training space, Doughty said.

Other public entities, including 9-R, would continue to be able to use the office and training space in the old high school along with DFPD, Doughty said.

For example, the auditorium would continue to be used as a large meeting room where board meetings, including the school board, could continue to meet.

Once a sale has been agreed to, Doughty said it would take 12 to 18 months to design and get approval for the remodel before construction could start, and during that time, 9-R could continue using the campus. The timing, he said, works well for both 9-R and DFPD.

Durango Fire Protection District’s proposal for Durango School District 9-R’s Administration Building would be to remodel the former Durango High School to create office and training space. The adjacent Big Picture High School building would be demolished and replaced with bays and a garage to house fire engines. (Terrance Siemon/Special to the Herald)

School board President Kristin Smith said 9-R received four proposals to buy the Administration Building and campus, which includes Big Picture High School. Three of the proposals were local and one came from out of state.

“Durango Fire Protection District came through with an offer that gets done what we need for our students and our staff,” Smith said.

She added that the district had a fiduciary responsibility in any sale, and DFPD’s proposal was best in terms of the bottom line.

Offer prices for the Administration Building were not disclosed at the meeting.

Those submitting proposals to purchase the old high school were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, Smith said.

For budgetary purposes, 9-R has estimated it will receive between $8 million and $12 million for the Administration Building and campus, which includes Big Picture High School.

Smith added 9-R is in negotiations to sell Buckley Park to the city to protect it as green space.

School board member Mick Souder said, “One of the four proposals stood out, both for what it would accomplish for the community as well as the finances of the district,” in identifying DFPD’s offer as superior.

Other proposals for the historic Administration Building included one by the Shaws, owners of the nearby Smiley Building, to providing housing, offices and retail space in a walkable to the downtown. Another proposal called for luxury condominiums and high-end boutique shops. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Numerous inflammatory emails have been received by school board members concerning their failure to properly consider other proposals for the building, especially a proposal to remodel the building based on the design and functional use of the Smiley Building.

But Souder said all proposals were evaluated even-handedly, on their merits, and the DFPD proposal rose to the top.

The hostile emails received in the last 36 hours, Souder said, had called him “corrupt,” “greedy” and “mad.” None of those characterizations were accurate, he said.

He said he would have no regrets if the district is able to reach an agreement with DFPD to sell the building for a downtown fire station.

“I think we would have helped the public safety of the community,” he said.

Souder added the school board had rejected the out-of-state proposal, which would have converted the old high school to luxury condominiums and high-end boutique shops, as failing to serve an adequate public purpose.

School board member Andrea Parmenter noted DFPD has long searched for a new downtown fire station, and has looked at 19 different properties, none of which had worked out.

Selling to DFPD would keep the space in a public entity’s hands, something Parmenter thought appropriate.

She agreed with Souder: “One proposal out-shown the others in benefiting 9-R, and that was the Durango Fire Protection District’s.”

The Durango Fire Protection District calls for demolish Big Picture High and replacing it with bays and a garage to house fire engines and other vehicles. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The vote came after several people, during public participation, asked the school board to slow the process.

Members of the public called for the school board to reconsider a proposal from Charles and John Shaw, owners of the Smiley Building, to buy the old high school, built in 1916.

The Shaws’ proposal would create deed-restricted condominiums on the Administration Building’s second and third floors for attainable housing for 9-R teachers. The first floor would be used for office space and some commercial space.

John Shaw, co-owner of the Smiley Building, said it was hard to quantify the value of his proposal.

“Other proposals might have more zeros behind it, but it’s hard to quantify the value of providing affordable housing for teachers,” Shaw said.

The Shaws’ proposal also would enhance the campus use of the adjacent Smiley Building and enhance downtown by providing housing, offices and retail space in a walkable distance, he said.

There is even a proposal for a gondola connected to the Fort Lewis College campus.

Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Local First Foundation, said she believed the process should be slowed to allow community discussion of the best use of the old high school.

“We should acknowledge who the building would be sold to and how it would be used. That’s important to the community,” she said. “I expected more of a dialogue with the community about how the building would be used.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

The Durango School District 9-R Board of Education has accepted a letter of intent from the Durango Fire Protection District to sell its historic Administration Building to the fire agency. The two entities will now enter negotiations to see if they can agree to sale terms. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
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