In July of 2015, students from the Francisco community were told they would not be attending the school their community spent years fighting to keep open, but instead travel an additional eight miles to attend Nancy Reynolds Elementary School.
The harsh reality came after a facility report, provided to school board members, showed the school would need $375,000 in capital improvements to operate for the next one to three years and $3,424,000 in capital improvements to operate for the next three to seven years.
Faced with those hard realities and a projected low enrollment, in a 3-2 vote, the school board chose to close the school, the first time a school has been closed in Stokes County since schools were consolidated to create North and South High Schools.
“When the school closed, we focused on school repurposing solutions that would transition a deteriorating, potentially blighted and unproductive county property in the middle of Francisco, into an economic development engine in Northern Stokes County,” said Horace Stimson, an active leader in the Our Communities of Northwest Stokes.
The Our Communities group, established in 2014 during the drafting of the county’s 2035 Economic Development Plan, set out to develop a repurposing initiative in the form of a community facility.
“Even though viewed as ‘mission impossible’, we were determined to make the effort. We all knew the school was central to life in our area, recognized it as the community’s historic glue, and that it would not be the last school closed in Stokes County,” Stimson said.
Conducted in two phases of eight months each, the sustainability plan involved community wide engagement, research and volunteer resources to help assess the property.
According to Stimson, the Our Communities team, led by Paul Blue, conducted rigorous financial analyses and held a series of public meetings, while another team led by Texie Jessup, continued to participate in monthly meetings with the county as a working group.
In the fall of 2016, at about the halfway point, Stimson and Stan Barrett met with local businessman Mark Black to discuss his perspective on potential commercial uses for the school property and the neighboring vacant land. At the time, Black was in search of a plant site in the Piedmont Triad area.
Black eventually purchased the neighboring land to the school and continued to support the Our Communities hope to transform the former school into a community facility.
In June of 2017, Our Community’s informed the county they would decline the school property for community use, and work with Black and his efforts for the potential relocation and growth of a light manufacturing business in Francisco.
“The county eventually created a transaction that helped encourage Mark to buy this challenged property and make significant investments,” Stimson said. “So thanks to the efforts of our neighbors, Stokes County commissioners and staff, and especially to Mark, for working with us and finding a way to repurpose the school that will positively impact the future of us all.”
Black is also thankful to the community and commissioners for their support.
He recently invited the community to tour the facility, which is now a cabinet company and will soon include doorframes and drawer boxes.
“The challenge was how do you contribute to the community from a company perspective,” Black said. “The cabinet company is doing enough business that it can supply several jobs in this area.”
There are currently seven people employed at the facility in Francisco and Black sees more opportunities in the near future.
“We plan to hire local when we can,” he said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the skill and hardworking folks in Stokes County. I would like to see 20 plus employees here locally and I think it’ll make a pretty good impact.”
Black added, “This can be about company, community and county. I love local decisions. Moves made very local are the moves that make a difference.”
Amanda Dodson may be reached at 336-813-2426.