DULUTH – Almost a decade after Central High School closed its doors, public school officials are broaching the subject of tearing down the beleaguered building to use the 77-acre hillside property for other district needs and private development.
The facility has sat vacant since 2011, when the Duluth school board decided that due to declining enrollment, the district needed only two high schools. The Central building was put on the market shortly after and has remained for sale since, despite almost selling twice, including a controversial rejection of a $14.2 million offer from a charter school.
A committee of Duluth school administrators and facilities experts are now recommending the district look into moving its administrative offices to the Central High School property, which has not been garnering interest of late from potential purchasers willing to pay even close to the $7.9 million asking price.
The committee’s proposal also calls for the sale of the iconic Historic Old Central High School building, which the school board voted to list for sale last week. The brownstone building downtown, which now houses the district administrative offices, requires $48.5 million in repairs, according to an assessment from contractors this year.
Greg Follmer, the district’s commercial real estate broker, said potential buyers have already expressed interest in purchasing Historic Old Central, though no price tag has been put on the property.
Under the plan presented at Wednesday’s special school board meeting, the district would invest $31.5 million to build a smaller space on the hillside property to relocate administrative staff and the district’s transportation facilities, which are now housed on W. Superior Street.
The roughly two-thirds of the property remaining — including the portion with the school building itself — could be parceled and sold to private developers. The committee pitched the idea as a cheaper alternative to repairing Historic Old Central and a more efficient use of space.
The school board would have to sign off on any changes, and Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said there are financial and logistical questions to look at before the governing body could even consider such a move.
District staff was seeking the board’s approval — which it received unanimously — to continue exploring the plan. That work is still in its early stages because the entire proposal could be contingent on whether the Legislature will agree to grant Duluth special permission to levy long-term facilities maintenance money to redevelop the Central High School site.
Under state statute, long-term facilities maintenance funds can be used only for specific purposes, such as repairs and other deferred capital expenditures. The district would also have to look into leasing space for its adult learning center and adult basic education programs, which are now housed at Historic Old Central.
School board members, most of whom were hearing about the full plan to demolish Central High for the first time Wednesday, asked questions, offered feedback and expressed concerns. Many said they were glad to finally be exploring options to do something with the property that has been empty for so long, much to the indignation of some Duluth residents.
Central High School was built in 1971 as a replacement to the 19th-centry Historic Old Central building. The newer school was shuttered as part of a controversial $300 million long-range facilities plan — known colloquially as “the Red Plan” — that closed seven public schools. The property was originally listed at $13.7 million.
In 2015, Duluth’s school board agreed to sell the property to housing developers for $10 million, but the deal fell through. A year later, the board rejected the $14.2 million offer from a local charter school, saying it wouldn’t be in the district’s interest to sell to a competitor.
Gronseth is set to step down at the end of the academic year, and as the search for his replacement gears up, Duluthians were asked in a survey to say what three leadership skills they’d like to see in a superintendent. More than 700 answered “financial skills.”
“There’s going to be a lot more dialogue,” said Cathy Erikson, the district’s chief financial officer. “I truly believe that a component of fiscal responsibility is sometimes we don’t have an option but to spend dollars.”