CLEARWATER — For the past 10 years, generations of alumni have worried about the fate of the little red schoolhouse.
North Ward Elementary School has sat empty since 2009 when Pinellas County Schools closed the 1915-era building during budget cuts. On prime land overlooking the Clearwater Harbor, some worried the original wood floors, charming brick facade and rich history would not be enough to save it from demolition by the highest bidder.
“I'm sure the real estate developers are drooling over it," said Fred Wilder, 66, who spent 1959 to 1965 at North Ward. "I wouldn't want to see it leveled and some high rise go up."
Now after a decade of uncertainty, the building could see new life. The City Council this month approved a contract to buy the school for $1.8 million as part of its revitalization efforts in the North Marina neighborhood.
With the Pinellas County School Board's approval Tuesday, the sale is scheduled to close by June 28, according to Clearwater Economic Development & Housing Assistant Director Chuck Lane.
Lane said the city intends to sell or lease the school to the right operator but must first have a third party analyze the building to determine what uses would be feasible. In putting the property out to bid, the city could set conditions restricting the buyer to specific uses.
Lane said adaptive reuse is the goal and that "demolition isn't on the radar unless our due diligence points us in that direction."
“The character of the building is undeniable,” Lane said. “It's part of the history of Clearwater. Preserving the building through adaptive reuse is what we'd prefer … Something that really invigorates the neighborhood and livens the street and gets some activity going.”
Across the country adaptive reuse is turning old schools, jails, warehouses and other historic buildings into breweries, apartments and retail space.
Last year the National Park Service approved rehabilitation projects for more than 1,000 buildings that were either on the National Register of Historic Places or considered eligible for the list, according to Shaw Sprague, senior director of government relations for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
North Ward is not on the National Register but Sprague said developers are able to apply for eligibility before a construction project, which qualifies them for historic tax credits.
Lane said the right development on the North Ward site could help preserve history but also boost the city's 2016 North Marina Master Plan, which aims to revitalize the district's 13 mostly residential blocks just north of downtown.
In March the city broke ground on a $6.5 million renovation of its Seminole Boat Ramp, which is directly to the west of North Ward. The project will bring improved lighting, floating day docks, a trail to connect the ramp with the Fort Harrison Avenue corridor to the east, a kayak launch, waterfront park, improved parking, and permanent rest rooms.
Also last month, Forward Pinellas granted Clearwater a $50,000 grant to improve 3 miles of Fort Harrison from Belleair Road to the merger with Alt. U.S. 19 with wider sidewalks, narrower travel lanes, and enhanced lighting and bike lanes.
The city's investment comes amid other development activity.
The 2016 plan called for the privately owned Clearwater Basin Marina property, which borders the city’s Seminole Boat Ramp’s north side, be redeveloped into a waterfront hotel with two restaurants. But in May, broker Brian Andrus bought the private marina for $8.1 million with plans to develop the site into 87 condos and eight townhomes instead, he confirmed.
Andrus, a $1 million donor to the Church of Scientology, also bought two vacant blocks directly east of the marina for $2.13 million, a footprint where the master plan calls for multifamily housing. He also bought a cluster of 12 apartments just south of the city’s Seminole Boat Ramp for $2.08 million to develop a 52-unit complex and parking garage, according to his city planning application.
In 2016 Pinellas County Schools considered returning North Ward to the role it once had as a partnership school, catering to the children of city and county government employees. Pinellas schools spokesperson Elizabeth Herendeen said "the numbers didn't bear out" to make it feasible.
Herendeen said the school system was "still looking at other potential uses" for North Ward until deciding to sell to the city this year.
Former principal Louise Crowder-Neri said supporters helped ward off repeated attempts by the school board to close North Ward in the years before it officially shuttered in 2009.
Crowder-Neri, who served as principal from 1998 to 2007, credits the bond to two elements: the intimacy of the 300-capacity school and the diversity of the student body, which drew from Clearwater Beach, the Greenwood neighborhood and Old Clearwater Bay.
“It was just such a mixed population of very well educated people, and people whose parents didn't even finish high school,” Crowder-Neri said. “We had black, white, Asian, Vietnamese. But what I loved about it, when you walked in that school, you didn't know who was who, who had money and who didn't.”
With its wood floors, high ceilings and tall windows welcoming a flood of natural light, the palpable history of the building also linked generations.
"It felt like a school where people had gone in the ‘30s or ‘40s, not much had changed," said Hillary Glassey, 35, who attended from 1993 to 1995. "Those original wood floors creaked when you walked on them. The hallways felt so old."
The generations also shared traditions. Every spring from the mid-1920s until the school's last year in 2009, North Ward students performed a rite of passage by weaving colorful ribbons around a pole in the annual Maypole dance and celebration.
Even after moving to Pittsburgh in 1998, Jerry Franklin, 63, still remembers the little red school house that he said shaped him as a child. Franklin began attending North Ward in fourth grade, after leaving his all black Williams Elementary when Pinellas County integrated its schools.
He remembers unity after a tense first day of integration. Franklin would walk the few blocks from his home on Alden Avenue to North Ward and felt like he was "going to a second home."
Crowder-Neri said she hopes whatever moves in after the city's purchase preserves the culture and history of North Ward forever.
"What would I like to see there? Whatever, just don't tear it down," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.