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More for Your Money

Independent assessment leads Escanaba to a wise decision

February 22, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Mac McClelland
  Escanaba’s newly restored junior high school saves tax dollars and brightens the downtown’s future.

In 1998 the Escanaba School Board asked an important question: Should this Upper Peninsula town invest its tax dollars in renovating its aging, 70-year-old junior high school at the center of town or build a brand new one on the outskirts?

To find the correct answer, the school board sent out requests for proposals for renovation feasibility studies to dozens of architectural and construction firms. Twenty-four firms responded. But most asserted an odd proviso — as long as the board guaranteed that their company would receive the design contract, the company would provide the evaluation for free. And when the district superintendent, Tom Smith, replied that the district would prefer to pay for the study, two-thirds of the firms walked away.

As it turns out, not only is this scenario actually quite common, it’s a key reason why so many school boards decide to build new facilities rather than renovate old ones. The truth is, schools that use free evaluations too often only get what they pay for.

independent evaluations of existing schools often provide better information and lead to a decision to
renovate rather than build a brand new school.

Indeed, Escanaba’s experience raises serious questions about the no-cost evaluations that so many communities use to help them decide what to do with older buildings. Since the companies are covering their own expenses for their evaluation, it’s difficult for them to spend a lot of time evaluating an old building’s structural, mechanical, electrical, and environmental issues. And when it’s time to estimate renovation costs, it behooves these same companies to present worst-case scenarios that protect them if they actually do land a restoration job instead of the much more predictable construction project.

The result, some school officials say, is that consulting companies provide inordinately high estimates for renovation; districts then decide it is better to simply build a new facility.

A Closer Look Favors Renovation
Fortunately for Escanaba, Mr. Smith decided to pay for the evaluation and hired the Kalamazoo-based Diekema-Hamann Architects, Inc., which, the superintendent said, submitted one of the most thorough proposals for building analysis the board received. To the board’s surprise, the firm concluded that renovating the old school would cost about the same as building a new one — approximately $7 million.

At this point, the school board was leaning towards building a new school, figuring that would be the wiser investment. Most consultants would stop right there and recommend a new school.

But as word of the school board’s intent to build instead of renovate made its way around Escanaba, it prompted a strong, quite different reaction from homeowners who lived by the old school.

“We couldn’t see losing the middle school to a new school,” said Gilbert Cheeves, an engineer who owns the Marina Company in town, lives near the school, and helped lead the renovation campaign. “It’s a magnificent building.”

Architects pointed out that, even at the same price,
renovation provided a significantly better value.

Mr. Cheeves and his colleagues collected 1,600 petition signatures favoring renovation and presented them to the school board in 2000. Mr. Smith and the school board responded by agreeing to Mr. Cheeves’ request for eight public meetings on the question. Mr. Cheeves became very involved in the process, repeatedly asking participants, “What is important to you and what can you compromise on?”

Pro-renovation citizens rallied around an unexpected piece of information provided by Norm Hamann, Diekema-Hamann’s prime architect for the evaluation. He pointed out that, even if renovating cost the same as building new, renovation provided a much better value.

“We thought it was useful to answer the question of how much it would cost to duplicate the current junior high school, not just build a new one,” Mr. Hamann said. He explained at community meetings that the old school had assets that just couldn’t be replicated in a new facility. The old school, in fact, boasted a 750-seat auditorium rivaling any theatre in Michigan, plus rock-solid construction and classic 1930s brick and masonry architectural treatments. That’s why, he said, “when we concluded our analysis, [we found] that it would cost $12 million to build the same school — the renovated school would be worth $5 million more than a new school built outside of town.”

The school board’s scientific survey of the community’s views on renovation and new construction found an even split. Basing their choice on gut instinct and a heightened awareness of the community’s feelings, the superintendent recommended and the board approved a bond proposal for renovating the existing school. It passed by a resounding 24 percentage points.

Converts To The Cause
The project had its skeptics.  “I just couldn’t see how this dark, musty building could be anything else,” said Bob Koski, the junior high school principal who had lived with the old building for 11 years and survived the mess, racket, and inconvenience of renovation.

According to Mr. Hamann, Principal Koski had his arms crossed throughout their first conversation and insisted that he’d rather have a new school. But, according to the architect, Mr. Koski has now become a firm believer in renovation.

“After the possibilities became apparent, he has been the best client we’ve ever worked with, involved and supportive every step of the way,” Mr. Hamann said of the principal.  

Superintendent Smith said the process also taught him something: A school district must spend the money to look very carefully at the facts, rather than use a quick, “free” process when evaluating an old building. The more thorough the investigation, he said, the more likely it is that renovation makes more sense than building new.

Mr. Smith is backed up by something that is hard to argue with — the newly renovated Escanaba Junior High School. It opened this fall and is now a spectacular building with a new classroom wing and gymnasium and a wonderfully remodeled main wing with a new media center, music room, and shop. By fighting sprawl and saving taxpayer dollars, the revived school brightens downtown Escanaba’s future.

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