City, county to share costs of bathrooms, new gym wall at ex-ECMS


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, November 5, 2018

Pasquotank County and Elizabeth City officials agreed last week to share the costs of hiring a company to design a new facade for the south side of the former gym at Elizabeth City Middle School.

The work will be necessary because Pasquotank County plans to tear down the annex building connected to the gym. The demolition will eliminate the bathrooms the gym relies on and leave a gap in a gym wall. Quick reconstruction of the wall will be required if the popular gym is to remain in use, city and county officials explained.

County Manager Sparty Hammett recounted during a joint meeting of city and county officials last week that Hurricane Matthew damaged the former ECMS annex building in 2016. After the county subsequently determined the annex was no longer structurally sound, then-County Manager Rodney Bunch closed the structure in 2017, ending, among other events, the popular “Fright Nights” Halloween fundraiser.

Hammett explained Pasquotank got $500,000 in insurance money to address Matthew's damage across the entire former school building, and only $254,000 of that remains. That's enough to cover the estimated $150,000 cost of demolishing the annex, but not enough to reconstruct the southern gym area, he said.

City Manager Rich Olson told city and county officials that the reconstruction project, which would require installing new bathrooms and possibly a new entryway, could cost $300,000.

Even with $75,000 that Elizabeth City has committed to the project, that would only partially fund the project, Hammett said. Based on working numbers so far, the city and county would have only $179,000 toward the cost of the reconstruction project.

City and county officials discussed several ways to approach the project.

Commissioners Frankie Meads and Lloyd Griffin said the annex building itself is structurally sound, though the floor and front steps are sinking. Commissioner Jeff Dixon noted that pilings support the former ECMS gym floor, but not the annex's floor. Griffin said one option might be to tear down all of the annex except the bathrooms, and reconstruct that area.

Olson, however, said a partial demolition of the annex would be more expensive and complex to complete.

Councilor Billy Caudle asked if new bathrooms had to go on the south side of the gym. Olson said they don’t, but pointed out the lost bathrooms have to be replaced one way or another. The gym must have a certain minimum of bathrooms to match its capacity, which is about 1,500, he said in a follow-up interview.

Councilor Johnnie Walton asked if designating the gym as a historic structure would pay for the reconstruction costs. Tax credits can offset the costs of restoring historic buildings, but the city and county wouldn't be eligible for them as government entities, Olson responded.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Cecil Perry asked if the county and city should simply consider building a new gym entirely. The former ECMS and its gym are very old structures, and he suggested a more modern facility might be more popular for tournaments.

Hammett and Olson said the facade restoration would be much more cost-effective. A new gym could cost $2 million, Olson said.

Responding to Perry, Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Bill Sterritt noted the city and county are already looking to build a new senior center.

“I don't know how you do it all,” he said.

By informal consensus, the boards agreed to consider sharing the costs of hiring an architectural or engineering firm to design a new facade or entryway.

Hammett said in a follow-up interview that there are many unknowns in the demolition-reconstruction project. In the “best-case scenario,” he said the project might get done next year. He also said the gym likely would have to be closed for some of the work.

In supporting a construction project for a county-owned facility, Elizabeth City staff explained the former ECMS serves much of the city's youth through the property's tenants, the Boys & Girls Club and the Police Athletic League.

Assistant City Manager Angela Cole told officials the city also envisions expanding parks and recreation activities in the former ECMS, including by improving the gym and adding amenities, such as a climbing wall.