You don’t have to look far to find an empty school building in the state of Michigan. Many communities are dealing with empty buildings that have been vacated by school districts because of shrinking enrollment, growing operation costs, and other concerns. While those buildings can be a detriment to a community, attracting squatters and vandalism, they don’t have to be.
There was a lot of community involvement in the building updates and rehabilitation, including councilmember Rebecca Hopp painting the exterior and employees from the Ottawa Conservation District planting a butterfly garden.
The city of Ferrysburg turned an empty school into a community asset by transforming it into city hall and a satellite police office. “Ferrysburg Elementary was part of Grand Haven Public Schools and it was closed due to declining enrollment,” Craig Bessinger, Ferrysburg City Manager said. The school was situated in a central location in Ferrysburg, making it an attractive spot for city hall. “A few years back, there was an economic development task force that put together a strategic plan,” Bessinger said. “One of the items in that plan was to possibly buy the 13-acre parcel of the school if it were ever to come up for sale.”
In its old city hall location, a former church, Ferrysburg was running out of room to efficiently take care of city business. “We were short on space, it wasn’t centrally located, and it couldn’t be easily located by our residents,” said Mayor Dan Ruiter. The Ferrysburg Elementary location was so attractive because it offered loads of space and was centrally located, helping to join the city’s two business districts. “When it became available, we bought it pretty quickly,” Ruiter said. The city purchased the school for $900,000.
Redeveloping the school into a new city hall wasn’t necessarily the plan right from the start. There was talk of demolishing the school and building a new city hall. “It was up for debate,” said Jeffery Stilles, the former mayor. “We had a company come in and give us the rundown of cost using different scenarios, from building new to just giving the building a facelift.” The process was all taking place when the country’s stimulus plan was at its strongest, and there was hope that a completely new facility would be a possibility. “There were some on the council in favor of leveling the place, and others that wanted to preserve its history,” said Mayor Ruitor. “With the stimulus plan, the federal government was looking for shovel-ready projects, but the costs were still too high even with some federal funding.”
Costs to tear down the school and construct a new city hall on the site were estimated at $3.5 million. By choosing instead to repurpose the existing building, the city was able to renovate at a cost of $92,153.
Rock five, a large rock from the former city hall building, was moved to the new location. A number of residents asked for this “landmark” to be relocated. Dick’s Towing in Grand Haven donated their time and equipment to move the rock.
Prior to starting the project, councilmembers and city officials visited the city of Norton Shores, where a school was successfully redeveloped into city hall. “It was good for us to see the Norton Shores project and how the city was able to modify a school building for its uses,” said Stilles. “I think it is definitely something other communities should consider. School buildings are typically well built and this wasn’t a huge undertaking for us. It has worked out very well.”
The changes to the building weren’t drastic—classrooms were transformed into offices, conference rooms, and city council chambers. The building basically received a facelift with new carpet, paint, windows, ceiling tiles, air conditioning units, and audio video equipment.
Grand Haven Public Schools had kept the school in tip-top condition and had already installed new computer lines, so that saved us a lot on cost,” Bessinger said. Built in the 1950s, there are some drawbacks to the facility, including an aging boiler, but all in all Bessinger said the move has been an economically smart one for the city.
In the future, if the opportunity presents itself, the city will build a new city hall on the front of the building, while maintaining some of the assets of the current building, such as the gym. “There’s still a lot of value in the building, and we have found the gym to be a great place for social events. It is a space we can rent out and use ourselves, too,” Stilles said.
In fact, Ferrysburg has been able to rent out much of the space it doesn’t use for city business, bringing in approximately $75,000 in rental income per year. The redeveloped school offers Ferrysburg 32,000 square feet, with 10,000 of that being leased to Ottawa County Community Mental Health. Other tenants include a preschool and daycare, and a basketball clinic. Also a bonus, the old city hall location has been leased out to a local dance studio, so that building isn’t sitting empty either.
“I find it enjoyable to hear our residents reminiscence about the time they spent here as students, when they come in to take care of business,” said Bessinger.
Rene Rosencrantz Wheaton is a freelance writer. You may contact her at 810-444-3827.