May could prove a critical month in the future of the Lee Middle School property on Military Road.
If the Columbus Redevelopment Authority has its way, it will also bring the organization’s first true revitalization project “win” since it was formed in 2015.
A private developer interested in purchasing the old Lee Middle School building, and the roughly 15-acre lot on which it sits, has until May 20 to exercise his option to buy, CRA Attorney Jeff Turnage said. On May 14, the city’s Board of Adjustments and Appeals is set to recommend whether to rezone the property from single-family residential (R-1) to neighborhood commercial (C-1). If that board approves the rezone, the city council would likely ratify the decision the next day, Turnage said, clearing the way for the sale.
The developer entered a six-month option with Wythe Rhett of Rhett Real Estate in November that would allow the developer to evaluate the property and decide whether to purchase it from CRA for a commercial project. One condition of the option was that the developer remain anonymous during the option period, and both Rhett and the city council-appointed CRA have kept details of the potential development under wraps.
Turnage, however, is hoping the developer will soon break his silence.
“At some point before the planning board considers rezoning, if the developer is serious about exercising the option, I’m hoping he will release some of the details about what he’s planning to put there,” said Turnage, who also serves as Columbus city attorney. “… If we close on Lee Middle — if (the development) is what has been indicated to me it will be — I can’t imagine anybody in the Golden Triangle having a problem with what’s going in there.”
A C-1 zoning, Turnage said, allows for light commercial, as well as mixed-use development of residential and commercial.
Columbus Municipal School District owns the Lee Middle property, which hasn’t been used as a school campus since 2011 when the new Columbus Middle School opened on Highway 373.
In July 2016, CRA purchased a $1 option from CMSD to sell the property and paid another $1 last July to extend it for another year.
Under that agreement, once a developer commits to purchasing the property, CRA will pay CMSD another $1 to exercise its option. Then the developer would pay CRA the purchase price to take ownership. The property is listed for $1.79 million.
CRA will keep the sale money to use to recruit developers for future projects in blighted areas, though CMSD Board President Jason Spears said the school district must approve the Lee Middle development before the deal could close. CMSD trustees have approved requesting the city rezone the property to C-1.
“Per our option agreement with CRA, the school district still has final say on whether we consider the project the highest and best use for that property,” said Spears, noting he doesn’t yet know the project’s details or the would-be developer’s identity.
As far as CMSD forfeiting the sale money, Spears said there’s a much greater “deferred” benefit of getting the longtime publicly owned property back into private hands — therefore on the tax rolls.
“(If the deal goes through) We won’t get anything on the front end, but we will have income in perpetuity from ad valorem tax revenue,” he said.
The next CMSD board meeting is May 14.
Building issues, damage
Since the developer entered the purchase option, Turnage told The Dispatch he understood the developer was interested in including at least part of the main school building in the development plans.
Depending on the results of a pending case with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Turnage said the developer may not have a choice.
Turnage said he expects MDAH to rule soon whether it will designate the original structure at Lee Middle — built in the 1950s as Lee High School, where white students attended in the final years of segregation in Columbus — a state landmark protected by the state antiquities law. A building addition constructed in the 1970s is not under consideration, he said.
MDAH representatives did not return calls or messages for comment by press time.
A state landmark designation affects how a developer can renovate a building, especially the outside, as its purpose is to preserve the look of buildings as close to their original conditions as possible.
The building contains asbestos, which will have to be removed. Turnage said CRA previously received a $1 million estimate to remove the asbestos and demolish the building — which is about the same as the appraisal value CRA obtained for the structure.
Turnage hopes MDAH will rule on the matter next month, preferably before the deadline for the developer to exercise his purchase option. The developer has indicated he is receptive to the landmark designation, Turnage said.
What might prove a much larger issue is theft and vandalism at the vacant Lee building that CRA board members fear will mount additional costs for the developer.
Since CRA has taken control of the building, board member Robert Rhett (a brother to Wythe Rhett with whom the developer has the purchase option) said more than $100,000 worth of copper wiring and pipes have been stolen from inside — significantly damaging the property.
“Every time you go in there, something else is gone,” Robert Rhett said at a CRA board meeting last week.
Beyond that, Turnage said, vandals have painted graffiti on the building, inside and out.
CRA’s board voted last week to install a multi-camera surveillance system with a silent alarm to curb the break-ins. The system can be accessed via cell phone and will communicate directly with the police department once the alarm is tripped.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.