DULUTH – For sale: a historic brownstone building in downtown Duluth that for more than a century has been considered an iconic part of the city's streetscape, complete with a clock tower offering a scenic view of Lake Superior.
The Duluth School Board voted last week to put Historic Old Central High School on the market after assessments last year showed that the structure requires $48.5 million in repairs.
No price tag will be put on the building, and the school board would have to sign off on any sale. District officials asked for the go-ahead to list the building so they could gauge interest and begin exploring alternatives to the costly rehabilitation.
"We don't have the funds to adequately do what needs to be done in this building," Cathy Erickson, the district's chief financial officer, said at a board committee meeting last week. "And if we had to defer this $48 million away from other things that we could be doing because we needed to put it into this building, I think that's a big ask for the board to consider."
Historic Old Central houses the district's administrative offices, as well as its area learning center and adult education programs, all of which would likely relocate if the building is sold. Some additional space is being leased out.
The former high school, which was built in 1892, is on the National Register of Historic Places. As the school board sat in the second-floor boardroom of the very building it was discussing at last Tuesday's meeting, some members said they'd want to be sure any future owner would preserve it.
Erickson also said a private owner could qualify for funding that the school can't access, such as historic tax credits and Opportunity Zone tax breaks — resources that she said could allow an individual or entity to "be a better caretaker" of the building beloved by so many locals.
Historic Old Central was Duluth's first high school, built at a time when Duluth's port and proximity to natural resources made it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
Thousands of students attended school at the castle-like building until 1971, when the district built a new Central High School, which was put on the market shortly after it was closed in 2011. The latter property, a 77-acre site that also overlooks Lake Superior, is still for sale nearly a decade later. The district's commercial real estate broker wrote in a letter earlier this month that potential buyers are seeking a price a few million dollars lower than the $7.9 million the district is asking.
Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said people have already expressed interest in the Old Central property, but if it doesn't sell, repairs would have to begin within the next three years to keep it up to code. For that, the district would have to access long-term facilities maintenance funding, which is levy-based. Erickson said the money could only cover repairs to Old Central, not improvements or operational costs.
Mike Poupore, president of the Duluth Preservation Alliance, asked the school board to hold off on listing the property until it thinks more about what it would take to make repairs and what type of buyers might be seriously considered.
"Once you put this on the market, it opens a whole can of worms," Poupore said, noting the district's imperfect track record selling its real estate.
He called Old Central "the second most iconic structure in the city," almost as intrinsic to Duluth's identity as the famed Aerial Lift Bridge.
"I think this building deserves the utmost attention," Poupore said. "And the utmost care and protection. For this city."