Mayor explains Hildebran School decision, pleads for community to 'come together'

HILDEBRAN, NC (WBTV) - For the first time since the town council voted 4-1 to tear down the old portion of the long-vacant Hildebran High School, Mayor Jennie Cook spoke out on Wednesday.

"We need to come together as a community," she said, "and build something that we're gonna be proud of in the future." Cook said there has been a lot of anger in the community since the decision was made to demolish the building that was built in 1917.

Cook said many people in her family, including herself, went to school there and tearing it down will hurt. "It's an emotional thing for a lot of us."

The decision not to renovate the building, she said, boiled down to cost and safety. $1.2 million is the lowest bid to renovate the building, and would not include all of the floors to it.

If the town paid for it, in a worst-case scenario, without grants or tax credits, it could cost each property owner in town more than $1,000 each. The total cost of demolition: $90,000.

Cook took WBTV news on an exclusive tour of the old structure. Inside, it was clear that paint was peeling, wood was rotting in places, and old tile was present as well. Ceilings were falling and floors were buckling.

Tests have shown the presence of asbestos and lead paint. In one section, the floor was completely covered with droppings from an ever-growing population of bats. There are places in the building that have not been used in 25 years. That's part of the problem, said Cook.

"It's reached a point where it is beyond salvaging," she said. Even so, many Hildebran residents still want the place saved.

"It has a lot of memories," said Debbie Hildebran. She and others think all avenues should be explored before the wrecking ball comes. "We need to make sure everything is done, nothing left to explore so we can say there is nothing else to do."

Many have suggested that Burke County take over the building and use money already set aside for a senior center to renovate the building instead. Once that is done, the plan would be to let the seniors use the building.

County Manager Bryan Steen told WBTV news last week that was unlikely. He is concerned that costs would be much higher than expected, and the upkeep on the building after renovations would be considerably more than costs to maintain a brand new structure for the seniors.

A non-profit group has told the town it might take on the project, but it would require the town to deed the property, along with parking, to the group. Since the property in question is in the middle of a tract of land owned by the town, officials say it would not be a workable solution and that the parking is too valuable to give up.

Opponents to the teardown vow to continue looking for a solution as long as the building remains standing. Though the town has already signed a contract with a demolition company out of Shelby, there is no schedule yet for the project. That means there is still time for the group to look at options to present to officials, but even folks who want to preserve the site admit that time is running out.

If and when the teardown process does begin, Mayor Cook said efforts will be made to collect bricks and other artifacts from the old building and make them available to town residents for keepsakes.

Any money collected would go towards the local food pantry, she said.

Copyright 2015 WBTV. All rights reserved.