August 20, 2014

Lindenwood may buy former Harmony School for $1

Lindenwood University-Belleville is considering the purchase of another former Belleville school building for $1. This time it's the former Harmony School.

Lindenwood wants to demolish the school, located at 500 Wilshire Drive in Belleville, and construct a track and field facility.

"I think it will do nothing but enhance the area and continue to stabilize the community over there," said Jerry Bladdick, campus president of Lindenwood University-Belleville. "Right now, it's empty; it's vacant; it's not as well maintained as it could be."

The university is working with St. Clair County officials and residents to address any concerns as the project continues to move forward.

"It is our intent as we have been for the last 10 years in Belleville to continue to be good stewards and neighbors in St. Clair County," Bladdick said. "Our intent is to be good neighbors to residents over there in the area."

During a meeting earlier this week, the St. Clair County Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved Lindenwood University's request for a special use permit for the property.

Director of St. Clair County Zoning Anne Markezich said several neighbors spoke at the meeting and were in favor of it.

Bladdick, who was not at the meeting Monday night, said he's heard neighbors did have some concerns, which included questions about lighting, parking and speed limits.

"We have addressed for the most part some of the concerns that they had about our property," Bladdick said. "We will continue to do our due diligence in making sure that we have addressed the concerns of residents, and we will continue to work with St. Clair County on the development of the property."

The special used permit still needs final approval from the St. Clair County Board, which meets Monday night.

Harmony-Emge District 175 school board approved a purchase agreement, effective July 28, with Lindenwood for the former Harmony School. The contract states the purchase price is $1, and the sale is contingent on a number of factors including soil and environmental reports, surveying, zoning and community support.

"Buyer reserved the right to terminate contract should it feel the community support (or lack thereof) is detrimental to the operation of the buyer's intended use," the contract reads.

A copy of the 12-page contract was obtained from District 175 through a Freedom of Information Act request. The contingency period is 120 days, according to the contract.

District 175 Superintendent Pam Leonard could not be reached for comment.

The contract states District 175 will be permitted limited use of the facility, once complete, for a period of 10 years at no cost.

Bladdick said it's too early to publicly disclose an estimated cost for construction of a track and field facility on the property. He did say it would be a costly endeavor, given that the current structure's demolition would include asbestos abatement.

"I suspect it will be a very costly proposition for the university," Bladdick said.

If the project moves forward, the university would complete it in phases, with demolition of the former Harmony School building occurring first. Bladdick estimated it would take at least a year for a track to be constructed on the property.

Initial plans call for a "state-of-the-art facility" that would meet the needs of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Grand stands would allow for spectators and neighbors to attend events there, Bladdick said.

He explained the proposal calls for a track with a soccer field inside the track, and different areas for field activities including shot put and high jump.

Lindenwood's cross country and track teams currently practice in neighborhoods surrounding the campus and compete at other schools in the surrounding area.

"We are able to manage with the support of the community, and the use of both public and private facilities," Bladdick said.

The university had been quietly looking for a property to accommodate a track and field facility, he said, and is also seeking space for softball and baseball fields.

"This is what we thought would be best for that particular piece of property," Bladdick said. "I think the Harmony building is one example of what we are capable of doing when public and private ventures take place. We hope the neighbors will come and visit and cheer on the Lynx track and field teams."

Lindenwood University has made substantial improvements to the former Belleville West High School over the last decade since purchasing it for $1 from Belleville District 201. They include a renovated cafeteria, a women's dormatory, a men's dormatory under construction, and the Alan J. Dixon Student Center.

"We continue to meet an unmet need in the area ... by offering a higher ed academic setting," Bladdick said. "I'm really very, very excited about our future."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or Follow her on Twitter at @BND_JForsythe.

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