CANNON BEACH — After more than four years, the former Cannon Beach Elementary School still sits vacant at the entrance of the town.
Some of the water fountains have started to grow moss. Old school chairs and debris from strong winter storms are scattered on the gym floor. The school, known for its dome-like gym, was closed due to tsunami safety concerns and lack of funding in 2013.
In the last few months, the city has received a growing number of letters with a similar request: Is the city going to buy the school?
Cannon Beach has considered purchasing the building from Seaside School District. Progress has been slowed by concerns about how it would be funded and how it fits with other looming capital projects like the South Wind evacuation site and an aging City Hall.
The city and the school district were unable to come to an agreement during preliminary negotiations last year, and the project shifted to the back burner.
But interest from individuals and around Cannon Beach, as well as a survey showing 77 percent of citizens believe developing the school into a community center is a priority, has put acquiring the facility back on the table.
“Some may say, ‘Why would you want to buy an old gym building?’” said Mayor Sam Steidel, a longtime proponent of buying the property. “It used to be a very central part of the community. And it’s the entrance to our town. People care about that, and I think there’s been lots of efforts by citizens to say so.”
Worries about cost
It would cost $450,000 to purchase the property, according to 2016 estimates. The cost of interior and exterior renovations would be about $371,000, according to Coaster Construction. While most of the classrooms in the 1950s-era building would be unusable, an engineering report concluded the gym was in good condition.
Due to age and the years of sitting dormant, Steidel said there are worries about unexpected costs and the upkeep it would take to run it.
“What’s scaring people is the maintenance and the remodeling. You don’t know what you are going to find,” Steidel said.
With a $99.7 million bond project in full swing to relocate four school buildings out of the tsunami zone, Seaside School District Superintendent Sheila Roley said the district has no interest in acting as a landlord for old school sites.
“We’re happy to talk to the city (of Cannon Beach) about any interest in the school,” Roley said. “We haven’t had any recent conversations, but we would love to have that building as a Cannon Beach community facility.”
Roley said all school sites will be appraised again this spring.
Since the school’s closure, many groups have come forward with ideas on how to preserve the property. More than 50 members of the Cannon Beach Chorus wrote to the City Council to advocate for the building to become a community center and concert hall. The Haystack Rock Awareness Program has expressed interest in using it as a possible art and ecology center. Many residents say they want a place big enough for the community to gather.
Some of the urgency for the city to buy the property comes from groups like the Greater Ecola Natural Area and Ecola Watershed Council, which say the city buying the school is the best way to ensure an ecologically and culturally sensitive area is protected. Adjacent to the building is NeCus Park, named after the Native American village that once stood there.
“A part of the vision for NeCus has always been to acquire the remainder of the site in order to create a gateway to Cannon Beach that celebrates the natural beauty and cultural history of this extraordinary place,” said Katie Voelke, chairwoman of the Greater Ecola Natural Area. “Cannon Beach and its real estate is some of the most sought after in the state. This property will likely sell to a private party, possibly shutting the community out from a cherished location.”
The school district has also had conversations about the property with members of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes in the last week, Roley said. Officials from the tribe were unable to be reached for comment.
While there are many competing visions for the space, Steidel said it is a testament to the building’s versatility.
“I think all this interest shows the enormity of what it could be used for. What’s better than having a building that’s constantly used?” Steidel said.
With community support again on the rise, the city will continue to discuss funding options at an upcoming work session, as well as how it could be balanced with other capital projects. Some new ideas are already being explored, like researching whether some of the dollars allocated to the Tourism and Arts Commission could be reserved for running a community center. Other options, like floating a bond or fundraising, will be discussed, Steidel said.
While all five city councilors listed purchasing the school as a priority at a recent goal-setting retreat, Steidel was the only one to list it as No. 1.
“Obviously, all of these projects will compete for dollars. But I don’t think they should compete,” he said. “It’s doable right now. South Wind takes a lot of long-term planning. This is something achievable if people are behind it.”