Dear Editor, the following is the letter in its entirety shared with the Stokes County Board of Commissioners on Monday, June 26 regarding the Francisco School repurposing Memorandum of Understanding:
When the Francisco Elementary School closed in 2015, community members, under the umbrella of the Our Communities of Northwest Stokes initiative, started an effort to examine options for repurposing the facility. Our Communities’ leaders held open meetings to engage the broader community in brainstorming sessions that generated ideas for potential uses of the School and grounds. In the spring of 2016, Our Communities reached an agreement of understanding with you that formalized terms of a collaborative effort with a goal of securing the transfer of Francisco Elementary School from the county to the Our Communities of Northwest Stokes Foundation, a non-profit organization. The community’s vision was of a vibrant regional center and public park that would further community and economic development, and provide a broad range of opportunities for Stokes residents and visitors.
In the months that followed, Our Communities’ team leaders met regularly with you and other county representatives to discuss the progress of the research. We appreciate that during the period of the agreement the County provided financial support for upkeep of the building and grounds. The playground remained open to the community. Volunteers made repairs and improvements to the playground equipment, the baseball field, the basketball court, and the Ag Building. They created a walking trail, added an information kiosk and Little Free Library, and planted a garden. This work alone consumed more than 1,200 volunteer hours and was paid for entirely by private donations. We held two large, successful community events on the grounds, and throughout the year, area families enjoyed a beautiful place to meet and play. Despite the building being vacant, the School remained an asset.
During the June 15 Working Group meeting, it was agreed that the continued use of and public access to the playground (Francisco Community Park) would be discussed as an agenda item during this meeting. Specifically, OC requests that the BOCC approve continued public utilization of the FES playground (Francisco Community Park), in concert with OC, effective July 1, until such time as the FES property is disposed of by the county. OC suggests use of the same or similar terms as to outdoor uses as originally approved and effective under the MOU.
More than a year ago we embarked on an exploration of options for the repurposing that required thousands of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars. We reached out to local churches and organizations and to resource people in a wide variety of fields, from agriculture to the arts, to education, social services, law enforcement and construction. We worked with agencies and organizations at all levels in various ways. Here is just a sampling:
· Site Visits / Meetings: YVEDDI; Piedmont Triad Regional Council; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Preservation NC; Forsyth Tech; Stokes County Arts Council; NC Agricultural Extension; Stokes Partnership for Children; Seeds of Hope, and YMCA.
· Reuse Property Visits: Spencer-Penn Centre; L.H. Jones Resource Center; and Cedar Grove Park (Community Center).
· Forums: Construction Professionals Network Institute; State Library of North Carolina; NC Rural Economic Development Center.
· Consultations: UNC’s Center for Community and Economic Development; NC Arts Council; Golden Leaf Foundation; NC Small Business & Technology Development Center; NC Department of Commerce; Appalachian Regional Commission; NC Department of Environmental Quality; NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
While some OC leaders were looking for partners, possible tenants, grants and other funding opportunities, others were working with construction professionals to assess the building and capital needs and conduct tests that were critical in evaluating the viability of the project. A three-person task force collected and analyzed all the data and information, reported progress at monthly community meetings and issued a draft report in May. Two meetings were held to discuss the draft and gain consensus, and, finally, community members voted.
After our extensive investigation, the community has reached the painful conclusion that Our Communities, acting alone, will be unable to realize the communities’ dream of making the Francisco Elementary School campus a center for economic development, recreation, community events, and continuing education. Without the continued active participation of County government, we cannot underwrite the high costs associated with the repurposing of the School. Thus, Our Communities respectfully declines the transfer of the property to Our Communities of Northwest Stokes Foundation.
You all have voiced appreciation for the central place the School has held in the Francisco area for almost a century. Community members have worked tirelessly these past several years to assure that, in a different way, it will hold a similar place far into the future. We trust that whatever plans you develop for the disposition of the property, you will honor the goals of the effort and we entreat you to seek a buyer who will invest in the community and develop an enterprise in an industry that will contribute to sustainable economic progress and the betterment of Northwest Stokes County.
Our Communities of Northwest Stokes