The former E.A. Crowell Elementary School building on Iberia Street, leased from the St. Mary Parish School Board since 1994, will require some $2.5 million total in repairs to bring it into top condition.
Meeting Thursday, finance committee chair Eugene Foulcard said the school board has informed the city there is no deadline for making a decision if the council will purchase the building. The price discussed is in the $40,000 range.
Foulcard mentioned the location is ideal for city hall, versus a site under consideration on Northwest Boulevard and the city-owned land near McDonald’s on Main Street.
“We need to lay everything on the table and weigh all our options,” Foulcard said.
Councilman Joe Garrison said, “Whether we remain here or move, it affects all of Franklin. We’re not concrete on it yet…I’m sure we will be open-minded and not be too quick to make a decision.”
“We’re moving way too fast,” Councilman Dale Rogers noted. “Even the engineer’s inspection was done at a fast pace. I don’t know how accurate these numbers are…they could be off.”
Foulcard said if the city had the funds for a renovation, everyone would certainly be in favor. He said renovation might be done in phases.
Rogers said the building most urgently needs to be waterproofed. “Whether we own it or the school board owns it, somebody has to put some money into this thing, and that needs to happen before the end of the year,” he said.
Engineer Joel Miller, Miller Engineers and Associates, said waterproofing would cost close to $500,000.
He agreed that waterproofing was urgent. “Water intrusion is going to deteriorate everything,” Miller said. “With your occupant load, you really could handle all the city employees downstairs, move everybody downstairs.”
He noted that though the building veneer is brick, everything within is wood.
Miller said the second and third floors have more critical safety issues, and the state fire marshal will insist all issues be addressed, not piecemeal.
“There’s a possibility to renovate your first floor, block off the stairwell somehow with something fire resistant,” he said. “Renovate your first floor to handle your employees, then at that point, if funds are available, start on the second and third floors.”
The 30,000 square foot building is equally divided in space among the three floors, Miller said. Only the first and second floors are currently in use. Stairwells have to be completely fire-protected and enclosed for emergencies to provide safe evacuation of occupants.
Foulcard noted how the old warehouse on Weber Street has been nicely renovated for Teche Action Clinic.
“The safety of our employees and our citizens is paramount,” he said.
Meeting building code is problematic as well. A structure grand fathered into new code can be renovated to about 50 percent of its value before the grandfather status is removed and the code must be followed for the entire structure.
The school board, Foulcard said, had an appraisal performed that put a $1.8 million value on the building.
“I would think it would be worth a lot more than that,” Rogers said. “What would it cost to rebuild it? That’s the question, the replacement cost…if it’s $5 million, you could spend $2.5 million renovating it (as grand fathered)…that’s what’s killing us, is bringing this thing up to code.
“If we don’t save this building, then who? It’s obvious the school board will not.”
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said Miller’s study contained too many consultants. “Everyone’s going to give you the Cadillac solution with the gold plate on it. If you don’t buy this building today, or if you didn’t, who’s going to move you out of it tomorrow?”
He said that in 1994, when the city obtained a lease on the building after the school board closed it in 1981, the city had to move the stairwells on the first floor. They face inward, toward the center hall, but to meet fire code were flipped around to face exits for fire escapes.
Jones said the building is probably worth about $6 million in replacement value. “It was built in 1908,” he said, noting how many hurricanes it has withstood. “This is a solidly built rock foundation building that hasn’t moved an inch in 104 years. It’s virtually in the heart of the historic district. One of the things we decided to do in the 1980s was save our downtown and our historic district. One of the toughest things to do is move the anchors or your downtown, you move that traffic to Northwest Boulevard more and more you’re taking it from the downtown businesses, you’re creating a problem.”
He pointed to the more than $1 million renovation of the library across the street from City Hall. “They made a long-term, 50-year decision that they’re going to be here,” he said. Jones also noted that the community college, also adjacent to City Hall, is seeing more enrollment than ever.
“This is the heart of your community,” Jones said. “Consider more than the dollar value and the assessment value, it is worth more than $6 million. If you get a true historic preservationist appraisal here it’ll knock your socks off what the true value of this building is.”
He said when the city first leased the building the estimate for repairs was $1.9 million. “We spent $300,000,” Jones said. “We did a lot of the work. I did my own office. Sometimes there’s another way.”
Jones agreed that water proofing and safety issues with the boiler system need immediate attention.
He related historic preservation successes of the past such as the Lamppost renovation on Main Street, largely funded by private donation.
Jones said he and Senator-elect Bret Allain will “do our best to work with you.” Despite budget woes at the state level, he said some $50,000 to $100,000 might be obtainable.
The finance committee took no action Thursday.