What’s the matter with the old BHS site?

Michael Abraham

I don’t know about you, but the brouhaha between the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and the Blacksburg Town Council over the sale of the “old” Blacksburg High School property has me flummoxed.

Why can’t the sides come together?

Here’s the background as I understand it. The high school on Patrick Henry Drive was constructed in the mid-1970s. From the beginning, due to problems with poor site selection and preparation, and overall shoddy workmanship, the building had the structural integrity of Swiss cheese and all the design charm of a penitentiary. I’m guessing the design architect is now in an asylum somewhere.

Anyway, after a snowstorm seven years ago, the gymnasium roof collapsed. Miraculously, no lives were lost, but the building’s life effectively ended that day. Spendthrift ways back then strapped us with higher costs later.

Teachers, staff and students, of not only the high school but the middle school, then faced two years of disruption, including attendance at 70-plus year old schools in Christiansburg, as a replacement high school was built at a larger site near the multi-school complex on Prices Fork Road. All’s well that ends well.

Except…

Except there’s the matter of the old, crippled building and the site upon which it sits. Here’s where things get prickly.

Virginia has an odd municipal structure whereby cities are completely independent but towns are semi-autonomous. What this means is that cities provide their citizens a range of services including police, rubbish collection, fire, rescue, recreation, planning and for our discussion, notably, schools, but towns share some services with the counties that encompass them.

In this case, for the most part, the town of Blacksburg provides every amenity listed except schools; its seven schools (BHS, BMS, and five elementary schools) are owned and managed by Montgomery County. Those of us who live in town pay taxes to both entities.

With over 42,000 residents, Blacksburg is the most populous town in the state (with Leesburg close behind). But 25 cities across the commonwealth have fewer people than Blacksburg and manage their own schools. Blacksburg considers this option from time to time.

Almost from the collapse of the gym, Blacksburg has maintained that should the county ever wish to sell the property, Blacksburg would like to purchase it, keeping it in public use. The devil is in the details; in this case, the price and responsibility for demolition.

Each party has hired reputable appraisal firms to attempt to assess the true market value. With all due respect to my friends in the appraisal business, determining the value on this unique property is at best a black art.

The county set the price at $3 million, whereas the town offered $2.0 million, plus the town would be strapped with demolition costs, estimated around $1.4 million. (As a frame of reference, the county spent $63 million on the new high school.)

As a resident of Blacksburg, this money seems to want to come from out one of my pockets into the other. Everybody in Blacksburg is in Montgomery County, but not everybody in Montgomery County is in Blacksburg.

This truth has created conflicts in the two governing boards, which now seem to be treating each other as hostile, competitive foreign powers, rather than mutually dependent entities.

Blacksburg’s stated position is its willingness to purchase the land at a fair price and keep it in public use; possibly “banking” it for a time when population growth might dictate that another school is needed.

This makes imminent sense to me, as growing pains under Virginia Tech’s ambitious expansion plans are already emerging, and procuring a suitably large property for a new school later will be exceedingly expensive.

I’ve long been studying why some communities are successful and others are not; in fact, my new book is about that. Key is the decisions of not only the business communities but the governance as well.

Words like cooperative, visionary, reality-based, diverse and innovative characterized the successful communities, whereas antagonistic, shortsighted, myopic, homogenous and unimaginative characterized the unsuccessful ones.

Communities that host colleges, especially research universities, invariably fare better than those that don’t. As Virginia Tech goes, so goes Blacksburg and so goes Montgomery County. Denying the growth Tech will foster is improvident and ultimately counterproductive.

As taxpayers, we entrust our local officials to make sound financial decisions and to work cooperatively and in good faith. But we also expect them to be farsighted, not penny wise and pound foolish, and to not make decisions that will cost the next generation more in the future. Blacksburg has put forth a reasonable, fair offer; let’s move forward with it.

After all, someday the county may need that land, or other town-owned land, for its next school. When the shoe is on the other foot, maybe cooperation from today will be remembered.

(Editor’s note: Earlier this week, in a letter to Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chair Chris Tuck, Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam increased the town’s offer to $2.75 million.)

— Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.

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