Oakland County commissioner tries to strike deal for former Waterford school
Waterford Township — An Oakland County commissioner said he's making a last-ditch effort to convince the Waterford Board of Education to accept his offer to buy and reinvent a vacant historic school building slated for demolition.
Robert Hoffman, a township-based developer, said he first approached school officials in July with a plan to convert the former Waterford Village Elementary School into lofts and to build another 14 condominiums on the 6-acre property.
But Hoffman said he's repeatedly been “given the runaround” by officials over the two-story building that closed in 2014 when enrollment there dipped to 295 students. School officials said the closure was part of a broader effort to "right-size" the district, which has an enrollment of 7,200 students, down from 11,381 in 2014, and that there's no further use for the building.
The building is slated to be razed next month, but Hoffman said he's awaiting word from the school board after taking part Thursday in a private meeting with Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Elka over his proposal.
Hoffman is offering $175,000 cash and a savings of $300,000 in demolition costs. The offer, he said, included a caveat that the district would put an immediate stop to any demolition or dismantling of the school.
"I asked why would they be in such a rush to spend thousands of tax dollars to tear it down when they don’t have to,” Hoffman said. “I was told — ‘oh, that’s coming from bond money, not taxes.’ Where do they think the bond money comes from?”
Neither Elka nor Superintendent Scott Lindberg returned calls from The Detroit News seeking comment.
Sarah Davis, a spokeswoman for the district, said Lindberg and a school attorney had previously reviewed Hoffman’s offer and “decided it was not in the best interest of the district."
“Simply, the property is not for sale," she said.
The seven-member school board voted on Oct. 25 to demolish the building and originally decided in the winter of 2019-20 that it would be torn down, Davis said.
“… It (the school), along with three other elementary buildings had been closed down in order to right-size the district due to decreasing enrollment,” Davis said. “… Michigan Works! took up residence in Waterford Village until 2019-20. With no other district use for the building, at that time, the decision was made to put the building up for demolition.”
Waterford Village Elementary School is off Steffens Road near the township’s “downtown business district” of the early 1900s. It was initially built in 1871, burned down in 1890, was partly built a second time on the site in 1901, and had additional classrooms added in 1927.
The other closed elementary schools were Sandberg on Merry Road, which sold for $126,000 in November 2016 to Windsong West Builders; Burt, on South Winding Drive, sold for $260,000 in July 2018 to Townsend Homes; and Adams on Clintonville Road sold for $147,684 in May 2016 to Waterford Township home builder Gerald Frericks.
Waterford Township Realtor Tom Wilhelm has been selling property in the community for 40 years and has seen similar types of sales by the school district.
“Land is valuable in Waterford because there isn’t a lot left to build on,” Wilhelm said, CEO of Wilhelm & Associates. The school buildings, he noted, are "well built and in pristine condition."
"They should be put on the open market and let buyers bid on them," he said. "I bet I could get over $1 million for the Village Elementary."
Davis said the board had discussed Hoffman's offer during a Sept. 16 closed session. But Hoffman noted that he didn't submit a formal offer two months afterward.
“In the meantime, they have spent thousands of dollars to remove asbestos and have voted to demolish it which will cost another $300,000," Hoffman said. "They have equipment on-site to do the job.”
Davis said “the building is slated for demolition because it is no longer in safe condition to use.
“The district went out for appraisal and the appraisal confirmed the highest and best value for this property is as vacant land,” said Davis. The appraisal information wasn't provided to The News. “The building is now scheduled to be demolished by end of December.”
Hoffman said he reiterated his offer to the district during public comment at Friday's board meeting.
Gary Brion, a retired autoworker who has lived in the township for 67 years, also spoke at the meeting, noting his daughter attended Village Elementary and the issue of sparing the building was not a matter of sentimental or historic value, but a waste of money and a lack of transparency by the district.
“You work for us,” Brion told the board. “We have a right to know your decisions and why you’re doing this."
Sally Strait, director of the Waterford Historical Society, said the historic significance in the school is arguable.
“In a manner of speaking, every school is historic,” she said. “It’s right near what was considered Waterford’s ‘downtown’ area on Andersonville Road near Dixie Highway in the 1920s. It was rural but kind of a vacation spot with a hotel and some businesses.”
One of the businesses, a general store, was purchased and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn by auto pioneer Henry Ford, she said. The historical society has built a replica of the general store in its historic village off Hatchery Road, which includes a log cabin, print shop and a schoolhouse.
But "preserving and caring for an old building is an expensive proposition,” added Strait, noting historic preservation is often largely documents, papers, books and photographs.
“We are all volunteers here and don’t have any kind of a budget to buy and maintain buildings,” she said. “Sure you would like things to be preserved but that’s not always realistic.”
Township Supervisor Gary Wall said he has heard about proposals concerning the old elementary school and while it is entirely a school district decision, he favors a plan for the site's redevelopment.
“Having some lofts within walking distance of businesses near Dixie Highway would mean more revenue for the township and perhaps families with children living there and attending Waterford schools,” Wall said. “The property just sitting there doesn’t generate any revenue for anyone. I see it as a win-win for everybody."