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Lee H. Dunlap/Staff

Harrison Fire Chief Marc Lowery inspects the interior of the old Harrison junior high building on a recent walk through of the facility.

The Harrison City Council expanded the city’s property holdings last week by approving the proposed transfer from the Harrison School District the former junior high school property on South Pine Street.

The action came after the Harrison Board of Education met remotely Thursday morning and accepted the city’s offer.

Mitch Magness, both a member of the city council and president of the school board, said during the board meeting voters in 2014 approved a property tax millage increase to build a new facility to replace the old junior high. Once construction was complete in 2017, students were moved from the junior high to new facilities on Goblin Drive.

That left the old junior high vacant, but the district was still by law required to maintain the complex of buildings. Even with best efforts from staff trying to cut costs as much as possible, that price tag was still just under $9,000 a month.

The board had asked Superintendent Dr. Stewart Pratt to either repurpose the buildings or sell them, but no district use was identified. Any financial matters regarding the complex had to go through Pratt.

Pratt said the property was appraised at $1.8 million during the 2018-19 school year. The district also filed with the facilities division of the Arkansas Department of Education its intent to transfer or liquidate the property.

Following ADE protocols, the district was then notified that it could dispose of the property as the district saw fit while still being in the best interest of the district and its taxpayers.

Pratt said the district then sought proposals and received one from the city of Harrison. He then recommended the board approve the transfer of the property to the city under terms outlined in an agreement.

Magness explained that his discussions with state education officials indicated they would rather see unused school property repurposed for public use.

If ownership is transferred to the city, the property would benefit district patrons as well as other members of the community.

The $50,000 fee the city offered the district would actually only cover costs to the district for future use of parts of the property.

“So, it’s a transfer of ownership, really, rather than a sale,” Magness said.

The school board, with Magness abstaining, approved unanimously, 6-0, Pratt’s recommendation. Magness said that gave Pratt the authority to reach out to the city council Thursday night and report back to the board afterward.

Magness gave pretty much the same information to council members Thursday night in order to frame the proposal. He added there is the cost of mitigation of some asbestos in a portion of the original part of what had been the original 1951 high school building. It’s nominal to the cost of the value of the property being obtained by the city, he said.

Pratt was also present Thursday night and said the transfer is a win, win, for taxpayers and the public.

Jackson said the asbestos is located in the older part of the building that will not be used by the city. The asbestos will be secured until the building is removed.

Jackson was especially pleased that the old gym, the former home of the Harrison Goblins known as the Spook House, will be preserved and be in use for many years to come. 

The gym has had other uses as well. In the 1980s the gym was used by the North Arkansas Concert Association as its venue for its seasonal series of entertainment programs. One night, Robert Merrill, the late American operatic baritone and actor, but probably known by most of the general public as the guy who sang the national anthem at Yankee Stadium, came to Harrison.

He stepped out onto the hardwood basketball court and began to warm up his powerful voice. After holding a high note for several seconds, he abruptly stopped and broke through the fourth wall to speak to the audience. He said the acoustics in “your old gym” are as fine as at any of the famous opera houses he had appeared in around the world. He said he was going to particularly enjoy performing that night. Similar accolades were given the venue by other visiting performers including the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

The former armory that was later utilized as the junior high's cafeteria will be used by local veterans’ organizations to put multiple services for veterans under one roof.

Matt Russell, commander of the Boone County Disabled American Veterans and president of the Jack Williams Veteran Resource Center Board, had said the building would be acceptable, not only for veterans’ purposes, but that it would also be made available as a community center open for use by other groups. He attended Thursday night’s meeting to share his and fellow veterans’ excitement over the deal.

Portions of the gym and the newer addition to the building will be made use by the Parks and Recreation Department. Parks director Chuck Eddington said those facilities would be put to use right away as social distancing and other protocols during the continuing pandemic had reduced the number of participants that could be registered in the city’s youth recreation program.

Once the city relocates its offices, police department and fire department headquarters to the new city hall building now under construction on Industrial Park Road, a new downtown fire station will be needed. A good location for it would be where the school’s band hall now sits, according to Fire Chief Marc Lowery.

Council members Bill Boswell, Wayne Cone and Linda DeWald attended Thursday night’s regular council meeting remotely. Council members Heath Kirkpatrick, Joel Williams, Chris Head, Mary Jean Creager and Magness were present in the council chambers with Mayor Jerry Jackson and City Attorney Grant Ragland. Magness said he would not vote on the proposal. It passed 7-0.

The ordinance was forwarded to the full council by the Community Environment Services and Welfare Committee chaired by Williams.

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