By Steve Keenan
Looking back, Vickie Smith recalls the hours of planning, a great deal of elbow grease from staff and YouthBuild workers, and welcome donations necessary to transform the former Oak Hill Elementary School building.
Looking ahead, she knows the task is far from complete.
Renovations are continuing on what is now known as Historic Oak Hill School, which formerly housed Oak Hill High School and later the elementary school but has since been purchased by the Southern Appalachian Labor School.
Smith, SALS construction manager/teacher, says it’s taken a lot of hard work to refurbish the structure, which is now utilized for several purposes and aims to evolve to offer even more possibilities in the future. She thinks the effort is worth it.
“To me, it’s a beautiful building for the city,” she said. “Hopefully, we can make this a needed community center.”
Once SALS took ownership of the building, early work had to be done to repair damage from water and boiler lines and from vandals who had made frequent visits to the site, Smith said. The ensuing months have centered on removing old carpet, installing drop ceilings, making the structure more energy-efficient, transforming classrooms into meeting rooms, performing work in the shower rooms and completing a variety of other renovations.
There will be office space available for rent, Smith said, and that money could supplement funds from the SALS operating fund and grant monies to help pay monthly utilities. Keeping the building running financially is “a strain, but we feel it has a lot of potential,” Smith said.
Two churches already stage services there, a dance studio is in operation onsite, the Fayette Institute of Technology has used the auditorium for graduation events, the Joe Aiello Memorial Basketball League has used the gym for practice, and other organizations and activities are in place. The Mountaineer Food Bank now uses the HOHS as a pantry and eating site, Smith noted. And, the Historic School Cafe also has catered several community events.
The center has been used as a backup in instances Oak Leaf Festival events couldn’t be staged outside, David pointed out.
Also in the works for the future include construction of 16 living spaces on the third floor, said Smith and SALS Director Dr. John David.
“We seek to create here a learning, conference and cultural hub,” said David. “Downtown Oak Hill is developing a new face (he mentioned specifically the farmers’ market, the White Oak Rail Trail and new amphitheater/green space).
“We want to be a part of a resurgence of re-inventing downtown.”
David said the center could be a site in the future of, say, an exhibit dedicated to recognizing the history of coal mining in West Virginia, if grant monies can be obtained.
He said the City of Oak Hill has assisted SALS significantly in making the transition from school to community center. The city was also helpful during the process in which the zoning for the site was changed from land conservation district to planned development, he added.
The potential success of the Historic Oak Hill School would help SALS as it attempts to meet the challenging economic times head-on. David mentioned a “Looking Back, Moving Ahead” approach in which non-profit organizations seek alternative ways to survive in the “times before us.” A Benedum Foundation grant is assisting SALS in the evaluation process.
For more on SALS, visit www.sals.info, call the Beards Fork center at 304-779-2772 or 304-779-2280, call the WVU Tech office at 304-442-3156 or 304-442-3042, or call the HOHS at 304-465-4246.
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