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Sometimes they can't be saved: Morris to tear down elementary school

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Old Morris school entrance
The old school in Morris is currently in the hands of a Michigan-based contracting company. Dore and Associates Contracting of Bay City won the demolition bid from the city of Morris, which purchased the property from the local school district.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Be wary of a building you can buy for $1. That's the message from Blaine Hill, city manager for Morris, which is tearing down its old elementary school after almost a decade of struggling to redevelop it.

"Everything comes back to money," he said of the three-story, century-old brick school, bought for a buck from the local school board in 2005. "Morris is heavily funded by the state of Minnesota through (local government aid) to the tune of 65 percent of our budget. We are not a developer and don't have money to develop."

That practical view ran contrary to the hopes of many in this city of just over 5,000 people, who fought strenuously to save the school. "The building is beautiful," said Sue Dieter, publisher of the Morris Sun Tribune and advocate for reusing the school. "Outside of the University of Minnesota campus, it's one of the most interesting buildings architecturally in Morris."

"Place is important," she said. "When you can stand outside something and say, 'This is where this happened,' that is meaningful to people." And when you lose common spaces, "you lose community memory... Honestly, it's very sad for me."

The city engaged multiple citizen groups, dating back to 2001, when it became clear the school district planned to rehabilitate or move from the building. In addition, task forces, advisory committees and teams of experts all have had a crack at determining a plausible new use for the school.

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A lengthy 2006 study from the University of Minnesota's Center for Rural Design explored potential uses like townhomes, a community center, a business incubator and green office space. Later, an architecture firm wrote a plan to turn the building and grounds into a green housing complex.  But in the end, and especially after the economy turned, none of the ideas gained traction. "We worked the process and looked at all the different things," Hill said.

"It's almost like when somebody dies. It's like they had a good life, time to move on."

As people talked and planned, the unheated school fell into ever greater disrepair. Vandals repeatedly broke in. The last time Hill was inside "was when we had an open house for all the demolition contractors to do a walkthrough. It was pretty bad then. The only good thing that day was there were enough windows broken out that fresh air was coming in."

He said at one point, somebody halfheartedly tried to set the school on fire. "I was hoping they would burn it down. Then we wouldn't have to worry about it."

Walking beyond the school
A pedestrian walks past the old school in Morris on June 15, 2013. The school, which is a collection of multiple structures, will be torn town after a long debate between the city of Morris, which purchased the property from the local school district, and some community members.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The people of Morris have found it's hard to redevelop an empty, old school in a small city. "There are certain places where you can do things with buildings," said Hill. "Out here in the prairie country, nobody has the money to put money into a building like that. I mean, for what purpose?"

"I think it's almost like when somebody dies," he said. "It's like they had a good life, time to move on."

The only thing left to do was hire a firm to tear down the school so the land can be redeveloped. The city will pay around $800,000 to a Michigan company, which will completely remove the building by the end of September.

"When the city awarded the bid for demolition, it was like, we're done," said Dieter has moved all the documents and plans for the building to a filing cabinet. Yet, she said, "I would rather be here today, broken hearted as I am, knowing that we tried. We did exhaust just about every avenue. A lot of wonderful things happened along the way."

"I still have a key to the front door," she said.

Morris school vandalism
The old school in Morris, which once served as the city's elementary and high school, has stood empty for a decade. Vandalism in all its many forms has impacted the building inside and out. This simple drawing was visible on the public sidewalk on June 15, 2013.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Is there anything she would have done differently? Getting the community involved from the beginning was crucial to the effort, even though it was unsuccessful, Dieter said. She wishes the city had done a better job of securing the school from the start, so vandals couldn't get in, degrading both the building and public opinion about it.

Hill echoed that sentiment. He said an administrator in another city called recently to ask advice about a school that had gone empty. He told him, "Get rid of it as soon as you can. But don't turn off the heat until you get rid of it. That happened in Morris. It destroys the building. The paint starts peeling and the tiles curl up. People will go in and start vandalizing it."