By MELODY JAMESON
GIBSONTON — Is rehabilitation of an old school building here bringing it back from the brink or creating a money pit without end?
The thoughtful responses vary, depending on who you ask. In tight financial times like these, some say, it’s neither a smart dollar investment nor good sense to save the outmoded, 85-year-old structure where many of the lifelong locals learned their three Rs. On the other hand, there’s a real reluctance at the county level to point bulldozers toward the 4,400-square-foot red brick building that so long anchored a community.
Bottom line: restoration of the age-afflicted, long neglected, generally needy Gardenville School on Symmes Road currently is underway. Even supporters of the project acknowledge, though, that the route to successful completion is likely to be a long one.
The rehab project began last week with tenting of the structure to rid it of termites as well as of any other unwanted infestations which have taken up residence during the years the building has been empty and unused, according to John Brill, spokesman for Hillsborough’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.
The next objective is drying in the building, ensuring that no further structural damage occurs as planning for full refurbishing of the oblong layout continues, Brill said. To that end, repair of the failed, leaking roof, of any damaged roof rafters and replacement of windows — all wood components — are foreseen in the near future, he added. Beyond that point, it’s a matter of finding more money, he indicated.
Monies underwriting the project at this time are federal community block grant funds, Brill explained, and department staff now is applying for another block grant to continue the effort. In addition, staff is seeking county-level funds through Hillsborough’s “R3M money” program, he said. These funds are set aside for renovation, repair, replacement and maintenance applications in connection with worthwhile public buildings existing in the county-wide inventory.
Just how much money will be required? There is not yet an estimated total cost to restore the old Gardenville School to a reliable functionality, Brill said. Nor is there any timeline for completing the rehabilitation.
But, there’s no lack of functions for the structure once restored. With its walls and flooring repaired, its rest rooms rehabbed, its warming kitchen returned to usefulness, the building that is about 110 feet long and 40 feet deep would be pressed into service as part of the community recreational complex that now surrounds it, Brill said. It would serve the community as a public meeting site as well as provide additional space for the growing after-school programs fielded by the newer Gardenville Recreation Center just east and south of the old school. And, such uses would not be new for the old building; it was the community’s designated rec center after its closure as an educational facility.
In fact, Dave Ramirez, the senior recreation specialist who manages the Gardenville facility, said the new rec center opened in 2005 now is at capacity in terms of available staff and services. Since his facility became a child-care licensed center in December, 2008, demand has increased, he said. If the brick building a stone’s throw to the west is repaired, his after-school and vacation outreach to the community’s youngsters could be expanded, he said. More space would mean more services for more kids and therefore more staff to handle the load, he emphasized.
That’s not a universally held view, however. Pete and Jeanie Johnson, lifelong local residents who both began their educations in the Gardenville School, foresee even more vital uses for the monies that will be required to rehabilitate the old structure.
The school was opened in the mid-1920s, providing two large classrooms – one at each end of the building – in which two teachers in each classroom each led two classes, thereby teaching first through eighth graders on a daily basis, the Johnsons recalled this week. The center portion of the structure was dedicated to an auditorium sufficient for the entire student body. The Johnsons, now retired, spent their elementary school years there, she for seven years before transferring to Wimauma Elementary in the eighth grade and he through all of Gardenville’s eight grades. What’s more, Jeanie Ekker Johnson’s parents, Marie Tanner Ekker and Alfred Ekker, also attended the Gardenville facility as youngsters.
The little school was closed, however, in 1959 as the then-new Gibsonton Elementary was opened. And, while the building eventually was modified and utilized as the community’s recreation center for some years, it continued to deteriorate, Jeanie Johnson noted. After its service as a rec center ended, the structure suffered substantial water damage due to the leaking roof, including flooring decayed to the point of breaking up. The net result, she added, is that today the building interior, inside the red brick walls, also is marked by destructive, unhealthy mold.